General Thoughts, Preoccupations, and Anxieties

What’s in my #1 spot right now is a host of anxieties and preoccupations that have been with me my four years, but I’ve never been able to fully address. This specifically has to do with how what I like to read, influences how I want to write.

I love to read about flawed characters – the more specifically messed up the better, because the words on the page then feel like an act of vulnerability, which is something I deeply admire. This kind of vulnerability also feels like a kind of honesty which is something that I aspire to cultivate in both my life in general but also in my writing. Because of this I think, I’m drawn to memoir. Writing about my life has helped me understand my life – and doing so feels like a way to be honest with both myself and whomever is reading it.

But I’m often not the only character in the personal essays I write and I’ve been thinking more and more about how each person I choose to represent in some way or another becomes collateral damage for my own selfish wants. The two things that I value most right now are honesty and relationships, but in a memoir, or an investigation piece these seem to be mutually exclusive. I could write about a person, fangs and all, and I’d love to do it, but even if that writing is smart and nuanced and handled much better than I’m likely currently able to handle it, does it justify the potential of a lost relationship? And if it doesn’t, than how much do I really value honesty? Or if I’m more than willing to do it, as long as the person never reads it, than how much do I really value either?

The main assumption that I also keep bumping my head up against is “that I actually know what I’m talking about – that I see these people in ways that they’re incapable of seeing themselves  and therefore my version of them equals truth, which I have a interest in capturing and a responsibility to capture accurately.” And I know that’s arrogant, and likely impossible but I keep doing it anyway.

Is there a way for me to ‘safely’ tread this line? (The main assumption here being that I want to, or should want to ‘safely’ write) And if not, then how can I be the most ethical while also being nuanced and interesting. Is there a way to do that without compromising what I believe is valuable and or losing a relationship

I don’t really know if this is a topic – or how this would manifest itself so any suggestions/thoughts would be more than welcomed.

Another random thing that I’m kind of interested in is I bought a hand lettering tutorial last summer because I wanted to learn how to create beautiful and elegant letter forms. But as part of that, I get these emails from Sean (that’s the guy’s name) twice weekly with all kinds of advice about chasing your dreams and ways to align your passion with your work etc. etc. with podcasts and everything. They their own folder in my email because I love that stuff and at some point I would really like to read/listen to all of them. But I’m also kind of baffled by him and the emails all at the same time. 1) how does he constantly feel like he has a revelation he needs to share with the world 2) what makes him so confident the world wants to hear it and 3) why does this kind of writing seem more and more common place. I think in one he explicitly says that this part of his work – and even though he’s giving it out for free (I only paid once for all of the tutorials) is crucial to his success, but I still don’t understand how that’s possible. I signed up to learn how to do art, not necessarily to hear platitudes. So there’s a potential angle of blog culture and why so many small businesses see it as essential.

12 thoughts to “General Thoughts, Preoccupations, and Anxieties”

  1. Hi, Jamie,

    I think you raise an interesting question. Here’s my thoughts on it: while you’re writing about other people (not yourself), it may be the most fair to the truth if you keep your description of them grounded in the concrete–meaning what actually happened, what they a physically looked like, the facts that you know about them rather than assumptions. Your work will not seem rude if it is grounded in this as long as it assists your story. The issue I would worry about for you is if you go on tangents about how you FEEL about people. For instance, you could show “Stacey” or whoever, doing something that reveals something about her character. Or, you could have her do it, have us understand who she is, then proceed to fill her in on your INTERPRETATION of her. If you do this, it may seem like you’re talking about people rather than telling a story. If you let moments themselves give the audience enough to interpret a character on their own, then I think you’ll be okay–but you should maybe still change names and not let your friends read it… On the other hand, if your interpretation of the person is crucial to the story–say you fell in love with the person and your feelings for them overwhelmed you–feel free to let that shine through. But it must be essential to your story. You don’t want to basically write a travelog of flawed characters that doesn’t have narrative movement and change–the best work would show how these people changed YOU.

  2. I really like where you went with it at the end there, with the whole personal-story-time of internet culture. I think that’s a really interesting phenomenon — everyone wants to share themselves, but who is actually reading it? Why would we rather share with strangers than with people who actually know us?
    A writing professor once told me that if you aren’t afraid of your loved ones reading something you’ve written, then you’re not being vulnerable enough. I think you should analyze WHY you value honesty so much — is it simply because you think the writing is more interesting when it’s as honest as possible? Or is it because you want to make yourself vulnerable in your writing? It’s a challenge to accept that anything you write may be read by the people you’re writing about, but it might also enable you to present them in a more redeeming light, rather than entirely negative. After all, a writer should find a way to love their characters, even if they don’t feel the same way about the people they’re writing about. If you write your characters with compassion and understanding, then I think that’ll come through even if the people you’re writing about are a little taken aback at some of the flaws you see in them.

  3. Jamie,
    There is already so many good things in this blog post that would be a great start to any project. These touch a lot on the human condition and a struggle I’m sure many other writers have worried about for centuries. I’m really interested in the idea of portraying someone accurately without offending them or losing their friendship. I have to then mention fiction. We’ve all seen gossip girl (actually that might just be me). But either way, Dan writes a book about his friends and then changes their names by like one letter. Everyone is pissed at Dan for portraying them exactly how they are. The honesty was too much.
    The question then becomes, if you write a piece of fiction, do you have to base a character off someone who is real? Not really, no. Like I commented on Giana’s post, fiction often represents things we see and experience in our everyday life (including people). It is impossible for that not to affect our writing. But if you place a character (even one that you are basing off of someone near and dear to you) in a fictitious world with made up scenery and situations and dialogue, there is some wiggle room. You aren’t being dishonest because the character you are writing about TRULY doesn’t exist. And you can make them as flawed as you want.
    I’m not sure if that was actually helpful or an irrelevant rant but either way keep up this type of thinking and you’ll have a spectacular idea in no time at all.

    -Sam

  4. Jamie,

    I am super interested in the later part of your post about the emails from Sean. Your uncertainty makes me believe that this topic is an excellent opportunity to gain clarity. It seems like a part of you is intrigued and excited about these emails, by sharing that they are stored in their own folder. I think a great first step would be to actually go through and read and listen to all of the emails in their entirety. By doing so, maybe a pattern or more insight into why Sean takes the time to do this when it appears that he gets little economic profit from doing so. What do you hear? What do you see? Most importantly, how do these emails make you feel. I thought it was interesting when you said “what makes him so confident the world wants to hear it?” How do you know that he is confident that the world wants to hear it, is it possible that he just hopes someone cares? I think this could be a really fascinating area to explore, and maybe your perspective will change once you do some digging.

    Good luck!!

    -Emily

  5. We’ve talked about this and most likely will again, but I think that by recognizing these “handicaps” to your writing, you can address them head on within the writing in some way. I also think it is important to consider who you are writing for. I would imagine you are more truthful within a personal journal than a paper turned in for a class. Exploring this mental block would be an interesting part of your project.

    I also think that the flaws of these people helped you grow as a person and come into your own, so that might be something to explore. The implication is that to fully demonstrate that personal growth, the flaws need to be explored.

  6. I think the final idea could be interesting to talk about this feeling of necessity to share bright and happy revelations of the world with everyone. It is something becoming more and more prominent in our culture (blame pinterest lol) but I do think it is a phenomenon. This would be so interesting to explore.

    Furthermore, I think that a memoir seems like something you are really interested in writing and that passion should weigh heavy in your deciding factor. Maybe you could combine the act of writing a memoir and the choices that you had to make in the actual piece. What is it like to make those decisions about the other people in the piece. What are the results?

  7. Jamie,

    I was really drawn to the first part of your post, where you discussed the pitfalls of portraying your loved ones honestly, because this is something that I too have struggled with in my writing (and I also LOVE majorly flawed characters). I feel like when I try to write about real people, I kind of end up blurring the lines between fiction and nonfiction, because no matter how open-minded I’m trying to be about looking at *all* of a person, in the end, I’m still writing from my point of view which is inherently biased. Can everyone know a person the same way? How much does the way I look at someone, my experiences with them, or my intentions in writing about them, influence the way they are portrayed, even when I’m trying hard to be honest? How might someone else write about that person? These things might be interesting to consider when thinking about fiction vs. nonfiction character writing.

    Just some thoughts! Good luck- so interested in where you could go with this!

  8. Hey Jamie,
    You seem to have a lot of ideas going through your head, which is a good start. There is certainly a lot to sift through in that first part of your post, but I think what it boils down to is your trepidation over what writing about the people close to you may or may not accomplish. The angle you talked about for the second idea was interesting, but I think there’s a connection in there to the first premise. You wrote that you’re interested in what makes Sean so confident that the world wants to hear his revelations. Maybe you can intertwine your experience with his emails with your own struggle over deciding how to approach writing about the people close to you. I think this could work as a memoir or short story possibly.

  9. Hey Jamie,

    The first issue that you pose was something I’ve thought through a lot as well, especially as I was writing personal essays in English 325. On the one hand, you aspire to write honestly about people who are close to you, but at the same time, this may partially mean saying things that cause strain in a relationship. I agree with you that usually it is the deeply flawed characters that are the most compelling to read about, and these often stem from personal experience with people close to the author. I think this topic in itself lends itself to some ethical questions worthy of exploration. Some that come to mind: where is it necessary to draw the line between honest expression by the author and consideration for his/her subjects? What are ways of doing this in a literary/memoir context? If you want one extreme example of full-fledged honesty in a personal narrative, check out the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard, who has written a series of autobiographical novels that have both been highly controversial and successful (I’m currently reading the first one and liking it a lot).

    One last point- specifically when you talk about making the assumption “that I see these people in ways that they’re incapable of seeing themselves and therefore my version of them equals truth.” I think the first part of that statement is exactly the reason for doing the writing you are talking about, but that the second part does not logically have to follow. Portraying people accurately is one thing, but striving for an objective truth (in the realm of non-tangibles like feelings and emotions) is almost impossible. I think you can start with “inter-subjectivity,” which might even mean speaking to the subjects you are writing about, and then move on from their, as long as you are honest with yourself. People read you because they want a story told from your perspective, and maybe also because your flaws (in a general sense!) are built into that perspective. As far as the ethics of this go, that would be something to discuss further!

  10. Hey Jamie,

    I think that you’re touching on an issue that a lot of people writing in personal essays or memoir struggles with, which is how to go about representing the world “accurately” through your own eyes, and giving yourself license to do so. I myself have struggled with this aspect of my writing a LOT. I find that I don’t have too much difficulty writing about my own flaws and issues, but doing this for other characters feels mean somehow.

    One technique I’ve found useful is to try and cultivate a voice or persona who’s a little removed from my seemingly “real”, day-to-day self and to write from that perspective. This voice doesn’t have to be someone else’s entirely, but if I can find a way to disassociate it from the me who calls my mother to check-in, or takes notes in class to at least some degree, I find I have an easier time giving myself license to be honest about the less-than-savory facts about the other characters in my story. It also helps me feel a little more at liberty to expose my own flaws in a more unapologetic way, which I think can help keep the piece from sounding too self-depricating.

    I hope this is helpful, and please let me know if you have any questions about this stuff, or if you ever wanna get together to bounce ideas around!

  11. Hi Jamie, I think that your last point about blog culture and handwritten letters represents the quirkiest, but most insightful idea here. For example, you could to write a story about this Sean character only based on the concrete advice he has given. You could explore which assumptions you’ve made about him are justified and which are not. It’s also interesting that you expected art but got advice on life in general. totally unexpected. Maybe people are the same way. maybe Sean can show that.

  12. It’s really amazing to me how diverse the writing is in this program, considering the fact that I have never written an ounce of creative writing in my life, let alone something as deeply complicated as memoir. What I really mean is that I have less than zero experience with this form of writing, so I just want to warn you that I’m very far from shore here.
    On a more useful note (hopefully) I love the questions that you are raising. I think it is really interesting the idea of ethical memoir/personal essays, and I think this is almost definitely something that you should explore. I think admission of guilt is the easiest way to gain credibility, as wonky as that sounds. I know this might be slightly removed from what you were asking about, but (personally) I think it’s incredibly important to admit bias, assumptions, and lies. When you talk about a person who is different from yourself (POC, SES, etc) you should state your stereotypes and hangups. I believe this not only leads to more ethical writing but also more flawed and therefore more human writing. I think, for the most part, personal essays are a way to not only express your experiences but to also show the human experience as it is lived by you. I think you should take advantage of that = )

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