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Journal, Day Three

By Rachel Zucker

What a terrific set of comments I’ve gotten. I swear I did not plant them. To summarize: the first was from my therapist of over seven years, now retired, wondering if I’m all right; the second was from someone I don’t recognize or don’t know thanking me (because s/he sees something of her/himself in the blog?) for what I wrote; the third was a cogent reiteration of the problem using the wonderful example of Didion’s book (which I loved reading and didn’t think was a great book in a classically fox/Basho manner) and stating a complicated and resonant form of the question at hand—“What kind of person needs so badly to validate their experience through other people’s responses?” (I shall certainly return to this question!); and the fourth was from my friend, clearly a fox, wishing I would write about her (after all, a good blog entry is an entry that has a fox in it!)

So, in reverse order, let me say:

4. Despite all my talking about it, I have not (yet) written a poem about my miscarriage. Arielle Greenberg, my foxy friend, has written a poem about my miscarriage. It’s a totally kick-ass poem (although maybe I just think that because part of it is about me). Unfortunately, I cannot post the poem to this blog because the poem is still unpublished. If you send her $20 cash or a bag of organic cherries in the mail maybe she’ll send you a copy.

3. Can a poem or piece of writing “validate experience?” I think that what this question is getting at is the idea that writing about personal experience leads to profit (either in cherries or in money or in validation) and that this kind of profit is problematic and wanting or needing this kind of profit reflects poorly on an author. I just started The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr and must say I had a hard time getting through the introduction without feeling uncomfortable on Karr’s behalf. Karr explains that she never expected the publication of her memoir to result in such an outpouring of gratitude and identification. She is honest about having written the memoir to pay the bills (can we fault her for that?), and the success of The Liar’s Club is undoubtedly an important socio-literary event in that it was one of the first in a deluge of memoirs that sold so well that people started talking about the memoir as if the genre had just been invented. Karr writes that she received a lot of letters. In these letters people thanked her and told her their own stories and said that her book changed their lives. That certainly sounds like validation. Isn’t that what a writer wants? To feel she’s affected people, made them think, changed their lives. These letters are an important part of the history of the book; certainly Karr has every right to mention the phenomenon. But it’s hard to write about the letters and the bestseller list without sounding like a big old braggart and that’s what makes me uncomfortable for Karr, worried about her. Why? Because she was successful in what she set out to do (pay the bills) and because the stranger-public responded with so much enthusiasm? Is it envy? Is it (and I’m embarrassed to say I think it might be) a feeling that it is really unladylike to be quite so pleased with one’s success? Or is it her glee at turning a miserable childhood into a bestseller?

Now Didion’s memoir is selling like low-carb hot cakes. And everyone is buying it and a whole bunch of people are complaining about it. Commenter number 2 is concerned that Didion is searching for validation. Interesting. Validation of what sort? Financial? Seems to me she could have gone out and written a screenplay, which, as she says in the book is what she and her husband did when they were low on money. Popularity? Exposure? She was already a well-respected author, and I doubt that she wrote this book to be validated as a writer. It’s possible that Didion was searching for validation of a different sort. Perhaps she was worried that she was, let’s say, a bad wife or bad mother and wrote the book in part to set down the story from her point of view, as a way of propagandizing the general public into sympathizing with her. For my part, I sympathized greatly. In fact, half way through Didion’s book I told my husband, “I think I will have to leave you and the boys in order to dedicate my life to helping make Joan Didion’s life easier and happier. I’m sure you understand. Feel free to find a new wife/mother for the children; Joan really needs me now.” So real was the feeling of horror at reading her story, so personally involved did I feel. In this case, my response to Didion (had I written her one) might have validated her feelings about her behavior. But her experience? I can’t think of a response that would validate her experience. Nor could I validate Mary Karr’s experience. I might make them feel less alone in the world or less guilty about having “profited” from writing about their personal tragedies (if in fact either one was feeling guilt or unease about having done so), but that is about the experience of having written a memoir and not the experience of having lost a husband and daughter or having had a traumatic childhood.

Thinking about novels as a comparison may clarify these murky waters. We simply do not have the same response to successful novels that we do to successful memoirs or confessional poems. We might be sick with envy over Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead, we may feel that Jonathan Franzen should or should not have done Oprah like he done, we may think that The Da Vinci Code was so poorly written and edited that we must be totally out of step to think that anything but plot matters, but we don’t feel that it is inappropriate for a novelist to profit from his work. No one said that Jane Hamilton was doing anything wrong when she wrote Map of the World, that horrific, haunting story about the little girl drowning in the backyard pond. If that had been a memoir? Perhaps we would have wondered why she felt “the need” to write it. And, perhaps we would feel that she was dirty to profit from the story. I was going to say that people don’t complain as much about this “true story” thing with poems because the terms of success are so paltry, but, actually, the few people that read poetry do a lot of complaining about these kinds of poems even though a great many people love them.

Sylvia Plath—I won’t even touch that now although she is central in this discussion.

Let’s take some more recent examples. I have heard, for example, some grumbling about Brian Turner’s book, Here, Bullet, a book I really enjoyed. The snipes I’ve heard more or less amounted to this: “Yeah, well, of course people like that book, I mean the guy went to Iraq!” Yeah, and what, he was sitting around in a war zone thinking “if I live through this maybe I can win the Alice James prize”?! Or, Catherine Barnett’s book, Into Spheres Such Perfect Holes Are Pierced, which no one has had the stupidity to malign in my presence as I am constantly running around shouting about how much I adore this book. It is a stunning book. The book is born out of a tragic personal experience, but my god, in Catherine’s hands, the language just sings and moans and the silences make you stop breathing. It is brutal and I mean that in the best way. I don’t know that it changed my life, but I sobbed on the subway when I read it, and I’ve bought about 10 copies of it so far. She deserves every prize and kind review she gets, and yet I’m sure she’s struggled with what it means to “profit” from such a deep, deep loss. Another book I love is Without by Donald Hall, poems about Jane Kenyon’s dying and death and Hall’s life without her. Now that he has been named poet laureate some people will dismiss everything he’s ever written and others will say it’s terrific because, after all, he’s the big cherryman now. I love that book. I love the book Model Homes by Wayne Koestenbaum, a book that is so delightfully pornographic and revealing that I was almost shy to read it in public. And have you read Jane by Maggie Nelson? You should. These are all great books of poetry that “exploit” personal experience.

Commenter 2, your question is rather perfect because it points so clearly to what needs validating (at least for me).

I think that people write memoirs or memoir-poems in order to work through experiences, to see their lives as stories and in this way make sense of them (and in the case of memoirs, sometimes, to pay the bills). The connection to psychotherapy is obvious here (although money flows the opposite way). What’s interesting is that this kind of writing is writing for its own sake. Despite pooh-poohing writing for its own sake in my last entry, the truth is I write poems because I write poems. It is the only non-self-judgmental space I know. What I write about and what other people will think of what I’ve written is blessedly far from my mind at the moment of composition. When I force myself to try to explain why I’ve written the specific poems I’ve written, the answer often sounds like this: I wrote this poem because there was something I didn’t understand or something I couldn’t accept or something terrible that was so compelling to me I couldn’t forget it, or two things I wanted to put next to each other and see what happened or something I wanted to do to poetry and see what would happen or something so bizarre that I had to put it down and see what the hell would form around it. In other words, I’m usually trying to work something out.

The thing is, when I revise my poems I am thinking of the foxes and the cherries. When I order my poems into manuscripts and try to put the work out into the world, when I read these poems in public or try, rather shamelessly, to sell my books like a traveling salesman to every bookstore I pass, well then I’m deep in the land of foxes. And it is incredulous and wonderful to me that anyone wants to read my workings-through or anything at all about my life (or this incredibly long blog entry). And when people buy the books or thank me at a reading it feels strange and fantastic and uncomfortable and narcissistic and often people seem to say that they like the poems because they have foxes in them and I wonder if that’s cheap and if I’m profiting from my own or others’ misfortunes and if there is something for which I need validation (which is what all these blogs are really about) it is that it is weird to know that I will probably write a poem about my miscarriage but it’s also my way, my right, my job. It’s weird to be an artist and think that anything you have to say or make will be of any interest to anyone else. Its incredibly narcissistic and a profoundly important social action.

2. You’re welcome. Thank you for reading the blog. I hope you will buy one of my books or send me a bag of cherries. I like all the varieties.

1. It took almost three months, but now, physically, I am truly all right; thanks for asking.

Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, June 21st, 2006 by Rachel Zucker.