As I write The Love Essays about my year of loving fearlessly, I find myself, time and time again, brushing up against the edges of what I’m willing to reveal. (And by brushing up against, I mean crashing into.)
I hadn’t originally worried about that. I thought I was writing a sort of guide, a “here are the lessons I learned” summary, in which I would expand on the ideas I’d expressed already in blog posts. But as soon as I started doing the actual writing, I knew it couldn’t be a guide for two reasons.
First, I’m no guru. Learning how to be fearless in love was and is an ongoing process. There are times when I truly do amaze myself with my willingness to be vulnerable and present and open and brave, but most of the time, I’m just stumbling along the path like everyone else , determined to stay the course, determined not to retreat. The truth is, I spend an awful lot of time trying to find my way back after I’ve wandered spectacularly off course.
Second, the real shit, the most important things I’ve learned, happened behind the scenes of the love project. The project first nudged, then flung, me into new territory, and that’s where the real learning happened; where the most necessary, elemental shifts in my heart and life took place. As soon as I started writing the essays, I knew that if I wanted to talk about fearless love honestly, I had to go there, ready or not.
There is a big, ongoing discussion in the literary world about truth in nonfiction, and it fascinates me. I’m not really talking about the Mike Daisey “is it reporting or is it theater” question, though that is interesting to me too. I’m talking about the more personal concerns of memoir, the kind of stuff that Sari Botton gets at in her regular Rumpus column, “Conversations With Writers Braver Than Me.”
She talks to literary nonfiction writers about truth, boundaries, the dangers of writing about real people, the vulnerability and fear inherent to writing yourself faithfully onto the page. I love the honesty in these interviews, from both Sari (who often crouches her questions within the context of her own difficulties) and the authors she talks to.
In her interview with Stephen Elliot (Rumpus founder and author of The Adderall Diaries), Stephen talks about how very different two versions of the same story might sound. He says both versions can be true because “true” is such a liquid thing.
In our most personal stories, which so often intersect wildly with other people’s personal stories, I think that may be right. And unnerving.
In her Powells Books blog post, “The Thinnest Possible Screen,” Cheryl Strayed writes:
The beautiful thing about memoir is also the thing that makes it the most appalling: It’s actually you on the page. And not just you, but you on a literary teeter totter that asks you to carefully balance the weight of fearless self-revelation against the wisdom of graceful omission, of the factual and actual against the loosey goosey art of spinning a good yarn, of the difference between what those you write about would say about themselves against what you have to say about them, of what you can verify and what you are pretty sure you remember from a decade ago, of what really happened against the experience that’s inevitably altered and informed by your own very particular consciousness.
These questions of honesty, truth, fearless revelation and art matter to me. They always have, but especially now, when what I feel is a need to honor the year that I’ve been through, while at the same time dig deeper into it through my writing. I want to be truthful about my own experience and respect the privacy of the people who were there with me. I’m not writing a memoir. I don’t know how many people will want to read the essays when I’m through, but it’s important to me that I get them right, that my decisions about what to put in and what to leave out are based on love and respect, not fear.
In many ways, this is new territory for me, this nakedness on the page. But maybe in the most essential ways, it’s what I’ve always done, what most artists do, I guess. Our journeys start with the doing (the living, the loving, the aching, the joy), and end when we attempt to make sense of it with our art.
Then, if we’re lucky, it starts all over again when what we create resonates with others and we are pulled back into the physical world, back to the doing (living, loving, aching, joyful) part again.
In case you missed it, I interviewed the crazy-talented and very generous Cheryl Strayed for Used Furniture Reivew. We talked about these questions of truth, but also motherhood and love and wildness and Sugar and her favorite books and what she’s reading now. Go, read the interview, and then her memoir, WILD, which is brave and inspiring, and the first book in a long time that I couldn’t put down.