Good writers use a schtick that we readers indulge with laughs and attention. It's called craft: the narrative arcs and little moments of insight woven between honest revelations, good vocabulary, a sense of humor and posturing which all work together to create best sellers. As a friend once said to me, we want "telling on myself honesty" but we probably don't want the gritty, underneath kind of soul-exhibitionism that looks more like stripping in one of those awful little dressing rooms with the carnival-style mirrors and fluorescent bulbs that make even the sexiest clothes look frumpy on a cover girl.
There are just some truths that are best left private. Evenso, humorous self-disclosure is the creative non-fiction niche. Gilbert and Lamott: pros.
The problem for me is that sometimes I get bored with writing - with my writing, with the writing of others. It's like I see the writing tricks and feel this huge urge to grab a sharpie marker and write in the margins, "Ha! Fraud! Writing trick! You can't dupe me."
I had some of these feelings the night I listened to Anne Lamott and Elizabeth Gilbert. Don't get me wrong. They're excellent writers, both, and equally compelling speakers. Lamott was "tears streaming down your cheeks" funny and Gilbert was insightful, gently humorous and genuinely warm. I spent half the night wanting her to cuddle me.
Yet, sometimes in the name of honesty, I feel misled. There's a seduction at the heart of writing and speaking. It's the thrill of audience, the sense of being a god in your little universe of words. That means you can shape the person in the middle of your narrative into whoever serves that ravenously hungry entity called "humanity" (or less romantically: readers).
Both Gilbert and Lamott are known for their soul-baring writing styles. They spare no aspect of their lives from scrutiny, including painful divorce, self-flagellation for their spiritual deficiencies and even the art of masturbation. But of the two, Lamott surprisingly came across as the more forced, the more conscious of taking the audience for a ride. There were times I didn't fully trust her.
Elizabeth introduced Anne and then Anne read from one of her books. Anne's a wonderful writer and we laughed, nodded and sighed at the right moments. Elizabeth's introduction of Anne was deferential, humorous and honoring. She filled it with genuine affection and insight, and positioned herself as someone who couldn't have been successful without Anne's previous writings about the spiritual life with a sense of humor. The irony, of course, is that Elizabeth is wildly more successful from one book than Anne is with several.
Weirdly, Elizabeth's deference led Anne to hog most of the night. As I exited the huge Royce Hall with hundreds of other women filling the aisles, I overheard several commenting that they didn't understand why Anne spoke so much more than Liz. Well, the truth is, Anne simply didn't yield the mike! It almost seemed that Anne was desperate to ride a little of the wake off of Liz's celebrity.
I noticed that Anne relied a lot on self-deprecation for humor as is the typical manner of co-dependents and ex-addicts. She gave the impression that she didn't fundamentally like people. She deliberately maintained this "I've not grown much" spirituality as a way of staying in synch with her audience. But it had the opposite effect on me.
It felt phony!
Meanwhile, Elizabeth came across utterly differently. For instance, someone from the audience asked if either of them had discovered that through their struggles, they had come to gain some wisdom to share or some gifts to share with others after having doubted themselves and their spiritual health, etc. Elizabeth answered that it is startling for her to feel that she's grown, that there are gifts in her hands (she held them up) for others, but that it still humbles her and she is in awe of it. Anne came back with, "No." She never has anything to give away, never knows it, doesn't feel she has anything of growth to offer anyone.
Now some people may have thought that a wonderfully honest comment. But I found it self-interested and posturing. How can Anne not have grown ever? How is it that she is spouting her insights but thinks she never has anything to say that helps people? Why write books? Why undercut Elizabeth's genuine self-evaluation with this "I'm a more honest, and raw kind of person than her" statement? It bugged me.
Elizabeth, meanwhile, deferred, classy.
The event was entertaining, enjoyable, the place to be in LA that night. Women buzzed, came dressed up in sandals and colors, big earrings and warmly hooked to each other as girlfriends so often are. I loved observing the whole space.
My take-home from the actual talks had more to do with my personal writing than any of their specific content. My soul searching had begun. What does it mean to share your life, you spiritual self, your broken-down person in the dirt versus the revised version of self that is slowly emerging? What does that look like in writing for me? Before the event began, I had purchased a little blue notebook from a drug store. I sat on the cold hard steps leading up to Royce Hall, took my pencil in hand and scratched letters on the pages.
Halting, stilted, hidden words. I couldn't coax them to come out and play like they usually do. The panic attacks for my physical safety morphed into emotional panic: Could I write what I was really thinking and feeling without it ever being "found out"? What a thought! What a thought for a writer of autobiographical essays!
To break through, I had to literally tell myself I could take a match to the little sheets of paper once they were written if I felt the need. Even as I had that thought, another one crashed into it to invalidate it: "If you never want anyone to know what you really think, don't write it down. Written words come back to haunt you and ruin your life."
What an odd thought to have while totally alone with a tiny notebook 3000 miles from home! I had hidden thoughts and feelings that didn't surface in my day-to-day life in Ohio yet with isolation, physical vulnerability and the up-close memories of the "me" that went to college, I suddenly felt exposed, in danger emotionally because I found my mind rearranging some of its assumptions.
So I bungled my way forward, overwriting, under-writing, hesitating and then gushing. The personal writing I did before the event acted as backdrop to these pros who make their living investigating the self and then translating it into entertainment. I listened at both levels: the primary one that entertained and that meta-level that taught me about what kind of writer I want to be.
In the days that followed, a different kind of personally dangerous deconstruction developed. Some of that journey I'll share here over the course of this week... and some of it went up with a match.