This picture is called Woman at her Toilet, by Titian.
Look at it good and hard: this is about all I ever want to know about what goes on in your toilet. You’re re-arranging your hair, you got a mirror, that’s all I need to know about what you do in there, OK?
Yesterday I got in a big discussion with some on-line writers I hang out with on my agent’s blog (www.betsylerner.com) talking about a new memoir that is raising a lot of ruckus in the New York Literary World. Bill Clegg, a former agent, has written about the year he dropped out of the book business rat race to do a lot of drugs and crap on a lot of his former clients and business partners. The ruckus is about the butt-load of money he got paid for the manuscript, the frenzied media attention he’s getting, and the unfairness of it all to decent hardworking gifted authors who don’t have a pipeline to Friends In High Media Places.
Stay with me, now, this isn’t all about my little navel-gazing world of writer stuff.
I don’t really care whose names Bill Clegg drops in his tell-all tale of woe, and in my opinion the Preppy-Crack-Addict-in-the-Big-City memoir (yawn) is soooo 1990s. The biggest EWWWWW factor for me is that Bill Clegg treats his readers to a great deal of information about the physical reason for his emotional neediness for drugs: as a teenager he had a problem peeing. It’s a real thing, apparently: painful urination.
I know that because a fine reviewer of his book (who trashed it, by the way) also mentions her own battle with painful urination.
That’s when I got the idea that I have to start a list of all the things I don’t want to ever know about people, starting with their painful urination.
(No, I won’t give it to you now, you just had a list from me on Monday. But look for it in the future.)
The other issue at hand is how much information should a memorist give to his/her readers? I’m interested in this because, you know, well, I sort of write sort-of memoirs. And I have this blog. And I have all these judgments I share with people AT THE TOP OF MY VOICE when they PISS ME OFF at the grocery store check out lanes, parking lots, waiting rooms, etc.
In other words, I’m a communicator, and what I mostly communicate is all about me.
But I have boundaries, dammit, and I bet you are glad I do. Aren’t you overjoyed that I have never mentioned my bodily functions? Or my deep, deep need for validation and spiritual awareness? (That’s a trick question: I’m not all that deep.)
I wrote a whole book (When Wanderers Cease to Roam, for the half-dozen new readers a day who drop in here, all unawares of the back story) and I never once struggled over doubts about revealing information that was too sensitive, too hurtful to family members, too intimate – stuff that I hear a lot of memoirists agonize over. Nope, not me. Because I have a firm grasp of what is boring and what isn’t. And misery is boring. Because misery, I believe, is easy.
Yes: misery is the easiest reaction to life. Look around you, look into your own past. I don’t have to tell you that the world is hard, cruel, unfair, and tragic. And sometimes it hurts to pee but honey, that’s the least of it.
Happiness is hard. It’s artful, individual, true, and elusive; it can’t be bought, can’t be faked, can’t be borrowed; and for all those reasons it’s hard. Especially since we live in a culture whose economy is based on selling it to you, faking it for you, or conning you to settle for cheap substitutes.
So when I wrote my memoir, I wrote about the stuff that was truest and most personal to my moments of happiness. I didn’t mean to imply that I was an all-round well-adjusted person by leaving out the sad bits; but I know my readers have their own problems. You don’t need to hear about mine.
The only thing I feel bad about is when I get such wonderful letters from readers who think I am the person who shows up on every page of my book… I must confess: it took me ten years to get together a years’ worth of good days. I left out a lot of stuff that didn’t make me look so good…you know what I mean. I can be a bit impatient, a tad snotty, and if you’ve been reading this blog, you know I’m a little irritable. Readers, you know who you are: and you are much, much, much nicer people than I’ll ever be.
But readers, this I can promise you: I will never fake you out, I will never patronize you, I will never manipulate you. I will never try to make you cry just so you can see how awesome my narrative power over you is, and even though my next book is about France, I will never be rude. (Well, not in the pages of my book; I’m still working on the real-life aspect of that.)
And we agree, right? That what we do in the Salle de Bain stays in the Salle de Bain? Right?