Tuesday, January 11, 2005

confessional art and self-centeredness

So, I've fancied myself a writer since around before I could remember, and a poet since around High School, so I've always been interested in what it means to be a person and an artist, particularly a writer. And, what it means to be a Christian person and also a writer.

Most recently, this is the issue I've been struggling with: the vast majority of my writing, particularly when I was at an age that ended in "teen" was very confessional. (Although, indeed, often the work before a writer is 25 or so is considered Juvenelia, the warm-ups for that writer's mature work.) It makes sense for me to write about myself, after all, one struggles with identity in adolescence, and everyone writes about what they're obsessed with. And you're supposed to write what you know, and if I know one thing it's myself.

Good art, though, has something universal in it - even if it's confessional, it gets at the universal. And I think the best of my past work has done that; has used my experience to say something anyone might relate to.

At some point, though, one has to get past naval-gazing, and write about something outside of themselves, even if they return to confessional self-revelation sometimes. But my struggle with writing outside of myself, even about the experience of people I know, is with authority. Who am I, anyway, to write about what Cindy feels when she digs up dahlias in Advent? Or, more recently, about Scott's experience watching the news at the gym? How does one balence the demands of authenticity with the call to move outside of one's own small world?

This whole entry is rather self-indulgent, actually, but it is a blog after all. And that's the question in my head today.


MattyA said...

I had to laugh when I read your post today because these are many of the same questions I wrestled with all fall. At some point during the first week of Holberg's senior seminar class she told us that our final paper assignment was 12-15 pages on "the topic you've always wanted to write about at Calvin, but never had the chance to." I, for the same reasons you mentioned in your second paragraph, chose myself. I also wanted to tackle memoir as a genre with this. I ended up interspersing my story with commentary on what memoir is and should be. Here are some of my observations:

1. We all create defining narratives for ourselves which typically include our future, including relational and vocational ideals (call it the happily-ever-after effect).

2. There's no particular reason anyone should read about me, but the power of story can make any narrative worth reading, no matter how banal the events of their life.

3. Our culture loves to hear about other people's lives (reality TV, memoirs, IM away messages, even blogging) to distract us from our own lives, to give us courage to face our lives, or something else - I don't know. Perhaps memoir is our way of avoiding real relationships. If I know Lauren Winner intimately why do I need real friends?

5. I think, in some sense, authority is a myth. Not to get too post-modern, but can we even tell our own story truthfully? No matter what you write about it's still coming from you. As Christians we need to be respectful of those who influence us, but in the end they are only influences. Take your poem about Cindy and her dahlias. It's only because I know you and Cindy that it makes a difference to me who's digging up the flowers. In the end you're writing about how Cindy feels, but you're not writing what Cindy feels - only she can do that.

You obviously hit on a topic of interest to me (is there some rule about a comment not being longer than the actual post itself?). I’ve plenty more to say on the subject too, if you want.

MattyA said...

Ha ha ha! I'm a really great counter, too! I should go back to pre-school. Actually, Graham crackers, apple juice, and naptime would be nice...

Katherine said...

I've struggled with these issues a lot, too. When one really begins to contemplate what it means to write-- whether about oneself or objects/persons/places outside of oneself-- some considerable ethical issues emerge. Does writing about something or someone necessarily objectify that thing or person? I especially wrestled with this when I wrote my senior thesis, a poetry manuscript based on my experiences living in Mexico. The whole time I was in Mexico, I knew that many of my experiences would be transformed into poetry. I would meet a particularly chatty or wise taxi driver and immediately be transported into a state of writerly observation. By the time I wrote the afterword to my thesis, I had pretty much written off my project as the appropriation of the people I met, and an appropriation of Mexico itself. However, one of my poet friends wrote a poem about some of the people he met while driving across country, and the soul of the poem was very prayerful. He saw writing about a person as a way of bestowing a blessing on him or her.

Confessional writing is even messier. To some extent, I think that there is a backlash against confessional art that doesn't take into account the craft of the writing. For instance, I literally cringed when I read a critic dis Anne Lamott because (and I paraphrase) she thinks that everything that happens to her is interesting. I don't think Lamott's memoirs are a mess of snivelly, self-centered rambling. They are exquisitely crafted, boldly narrated interpretations of a particular life. Though I wouldn't want to set up a subjective demarcation, claiming that it's only okay to write about oneself if one writes well. Lord knows we all have our neccessary self-absorbed teenage angst poems. But there is something to be said for craft, and for the humility of knowing that its the interpretation and telling of a personal story that makes it evocative (and whatever else art is supposed to be).

Great post, Bethany!

Anonymous said...

In the light of your comments and the responses following I am not sure if I can truly know anything about what you have said. How can I reply, since I am not even a writer? I am tempted to say your writing is interesting, but how can I know? Am I, as an observer, no more than a Thermos bottle—-put in something cold and it is kept cold; put in something hot and it is kept hot (but how does a Thermos know?).
Perhaps you could give up navel-gazing for Lent, but that does not mean you could gaze at another's navel for lint. (sorry) fwiw, though I am not a regular reader of your blog, I always find it worth the visit.