Betty Duffy

Thursday, November 19, 2009

“When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.”

--Czeslaw Milosz

In college I wrote a play. The play was autobiographical. It was about sin in my life. People who are living in sin love to point out the hypocrisy of others, so the play was also about my family and what I perceived to be their hypocrisy. It was staged in a black box theater with several other student productions. Many of the student productions were obscene. Mine was too. I did not want my family to know about this program.

Yet, for some unknown reason, perhaps because I was tired of living in secrecy, perhaps because I was proud of myself for having my play staged, I told my mom about it. There was likely a part of me that thought exposing myself would lead to some form of dialogue with my mother, and in turn, mutual understanding. I pictured her coming to one of the performances, perhaps feeling a little shocked, but then letting the floodgates open between us over coffee afterwards.

On the night of the performance, my mom had not arrived when the bell rang for everyone to take their seats in the theater. I felt relief for a moment, thinking she had decided to stay home. The lights dimmed, then the theater doors cracked open and in walked my mom, tiptoeing to find a seat, followed by my father and several members of my family, who were the models for characters in my play. She had apparently thought that my desire to shield my play from the family was some form of humility, and that I would be happy with this show of support.

I sat in my corner of the small theater, listening with an internal censor to the first couple of plays. F-words sputtered into the atmosphere like machine gun fire. When my play began, I could only watch my family, sitting in their row with tight lips and straight backs, looking like someone had taken a ruler and smacked them each in the face with it, one after the other. When my ten-minute spot was up, they all got up and walked out.

I vowed then and there that my family would never read another word that I wrote. But time sort of lessens the sting of most wounds, and a writer can only write in a hovel for so long, and now here I am with a blog, writing somewhat autobiographically. It’s an impulse, a way of making sense of the world and of relationships. When someone is born with this impulse, not writing, to some extent means not growing. And publishing is a natural end to this process.

There will always be a struggle then to write honestly and still protect the people and experiences that inform the writing process. In a writing course I took a couple years ago, I asked the professor what to do about this problem. He answered, “YOU WISH it were a problem. If this is ever a problem for you, it means you’re getting published. And in that case, you write what you need to write, and then you go to the people involved and tell them that this is going to be published, and if they have a problem you deal with it then. But you MAY NOT write in fear or you will most certainly never see publication.”

Blogging makes these issues more immediate. While some bloggers have no problem publishing their most private thoughts, for most of us, a reader would find that a very different account of actual events resides on the private pages of a diary. Still we occasionally make mistakes in discretion because we lack objective editors to temper our words.

David Matthews, author of “Ace of Spades,”says, “When it comes to writing about family or friends, you can be liked, or you can tell the truth. If you want both, you should become an accountant.”

For Christians, this reality becomes a moral problem as well as an ethical one: How to advance on the path of perfect charity while honoring the God-given impulse to write and make sense out of our lives.

I wonder sometimes if an element of fundamentalism hasn’t crept into our modern Catholic consciousness that prevents us from considering our writing, and our writing about ourselves, in particular, an art. We want to honor the Truth, and so order our fictional universes in ways that are not truthful.

It’s a complicated thing for any writer, and I’m not sure what the Christian answer should be. For me, as I've said before, I try to find the Gospel in the events of life. Where the events of life are concerned on this blog, however, don't take any of it as gospel.

Related posts:
A Bone to Pick with Modern Catholic Writers

The Truth is in the Lies we Tell


Jennifer @ Conversion Diary said...

I struggle with this kind of thing too. Anyway, I was excited to see this post. I panicked when your blog seemed to be down yesterday -- it's one of my favorites!

mrsdarwin said...

I'm glad you're back! Even in the short time you were down, we missed you.

Balancing honesty and... not charity, but sensitivity, is very tricky. On the one hand, we have an obligation not to hurt people needlessly. On the other, sometimes true and good things can't be said without offending someone. The balance is in making sure that what's being said is actually true and good, as opposed to being just gratifying to say. It seems to me that you've struck the right balance now.

Anonymous said...

Thank God you're back ... I also panicked at the thought that your blog was gone forever!

Pentimento said...

I feel you.

If you start out writing your blog for a few people who know you intimately, as I did and as I believe you did too, there can be a painful shifting of gears when you find yourself confronted with an unexpectedly broadened readership. You were a known quantity to your original readership, but you are a mystery to the newer readers, who outnumber the original group. So who should you be? Who will they think you are?

The fundamentalism you speak of is a fundamentalism in perception as well as in presentation -- I mean that it's hard to say whether it starts in the writer or in the reader. If your Catholicism is an openly-stated aspect of your writing and your consciousness, you may find that some of your equally open and self-conscious co-religionists are standing by waiting to judge the way you express your faith and tally how well you live up to it. I had no idea who was reading my blog (I still have no idea, as I don't know how to use the counting mechanism or check up on people's i.p. addresses), and never really considered that anyone who didn't know me personally might be, and I was surprised a year or so ago to receive deeply hurtful criticisms in my comboxes from some who thought my writing was inappropriate, and from others who called my faith into question and even slandered me in the comboxes of a friend who linked to me. My best friend in real life, who has posted on my blog as Really Rosie, took me to task after that because she thought my writing had become bland and cautious.

I think that most of the people who hated my blog and thought I was evil incarnate have by now acquired the good sense not to read it anymore, so I feel somewhat freer now. But we walk a fine line between freedom and discretion, as you suggest. The truth will set you free: that was the premise on which I began writing my blog when I was working through my grief over multiple consecutive pregnancy losses. But we don't write in a vacuum, and a big part, I think, of honing our craft as Catholic writers -- Catholic memoirists? Catholic confessional writers? -- is knowing how to use our stories to give glory and honor to God and hope to our brothers and sisters as they stumble along the tangled path of this life alongside us.

Somewhere in the Catechism it's very clearly stated that we are called upon to assume the best intentions on the part of our fellows, though I can't seem to find that passage right now. It's something, I believe, that both bloggers and readers should agree to undertake.

Anne said...

What a fabulous post! When I first started writing anything, but before I started blogging, my husband was very much against it. He was so afraid that I would reveal some deep dark secret. Although I can be quite dark, I'm sadly not very deep.

I forged ahead after much desperate persuasion, and today,he supports me completely. It doesn't hurt that every now and then I write wonderful stories about him. That always wins him over.

Emily J. said...

The good thing about being part of a chaotically enmeshed family is that you are not in danger of repeating particular sins because you are not allowed to forget them...

BettyDuffy said...

"I think that most of the people who hated my blog and thought I was evil incarnate have by now acquired the good sense not to read it anymore,"

Very good point, Pentimento. I've told my family to please, PLEASE stop reading my blog if it makes them squeamish. But love it or hate it, they can't ignore it.

In any case, I think your comment, as usual, makes many good points, and is a post in itself.

Broken Barn Industries said...

Wait, you left us hanging! What was the fallout from your family like immediately afterward? Love that quote, by the way.