My mother sent me a text last night that read: “Good story today. Cringed a bit re: soap operas“. I laughed out loud, read it to Ben, and then I was suddenly struck by an icky sensation. Holy hell, day five of blogging and have I already said too much? Surely referencing my mother’s penchants for watching soap operas in the 1980’s is harmless, the lowest rung on a very rickety ladder of intimate details one can share about a person. But still, it really begs the question: if your stories are made up of other people’s stories, or of your memories of them, how do you tell them without causing offense or embarrassment? This is the problem with personal essays, writers of Vampire novels don’t share this issue–Dracula didn’t call up Bram Stoker after the fact and say “Dude, I shared that with you in confidence”.
When Ben and I were living in Australia, humorist David Sedaris did a book tour throughout the country. I am a Sedaris super-fan, he is my literary hero, and my discovery of the creative non-fiction genre through his work was revolutionary to me. The fact that he and I would be in Perth at the same time was a squeal worthy prospect. The day tickets went on sale, I set my alarm and was ready and waiting at the laptop for the clock to strike the appropriate hour. I was the eighth person to book seats and after looking at the map of the theater, realized that we would be in the front row. In the days leading up to the event, I was reading a lot about the writing genre. In one book- I can no longer recall the title- the author discusses the feathers that Sedaris had ruffled over the years with his naked accounts of family and friends. One example the author used was Sedaris writing about the messy apartment of his younger sister, who was a bit of a aimless drifter. Sedaris writes that (and I’m paraphrasing here), ‘he rolled up his sleeves to wash his sister’s dishes and start saving her life’. The author criticized that comment as being negative and self-aggrandizing, whereas I read that line and think that it says more about Sedaris’ perception than of his impact on his sister’s life. It’s a deliberately ludicrous statement to make that tidying someone’s kitchen could make that big a difference, as dishes will always pile up, and people don’t really ever change. Still, the article brewed inside of me in the days leading up to the reading. The tickets arrived in the mail and I learned that the event would also include a Q&A and book signing. Swoon! Oh my god, what would I say to my hero?
The day of the reading came and Ben and I went out for dinner and split a bottle of red wine. We walked to the The Astor Theatre in Mount Lawley. The show started at 7:30, but the space was already packed when we got there before 7:00. A long line snaked to the entrance way and I realized that these people were waiting to meet Sedaris. Trembling with excitement, we head to the bar (as if we needed more to drink) and I see him sitting at a table. Just remembering it now is thrilling. Ben and I decided that we would wait until after the show to have him sign our books. The reading was spectacular, Sedaris read journal entries and mused on cultural differences and shared jokes he has collected from across the globe. The time came for the Q&A, and my heart immediately starts pounding. I tentatively raise my hand three times and each time he answered other questions. (Hello? I am in the front row in an effing red dress–NOTICE ME!!) “I have time for one last question”, he says. And my husband digs his elbow into my arm, I inhale sharply and raise my hand. “Yes, you in the front”. I had an out of body experience, I heard my voice as if it weren’t my own. Other people had asked about his family, or in reference to a story about getting a root canal in Paris, what the dental care system was like in Europe, but I asked about the writing process, referencing the book I had just read. “How do you write about relationships, without damaging those relationships?”, I asked. He inhaled to answer, but then he paused. With his other answers, he would have an immediate answer, a pithy anecdote. But my god, he paused, to think of an appropriate answer. Basically he said that one needs permission or a blessing from the person, or advice on how to change the story so as not to identify that person in their day to day life, without damaging the integrity of the story, which was not always possible or easy.
Ben and I waited in a very long line to meet Sedaris. As we got closer, I listened in on his interactions with the readers. Sometimes he kept it short, doodled a drawing of an animal, thanked them for coming and moved on to the next person. He asked one woman ahead of me for a joke, and she panicked, she didn’t have one and her time was instantly over. Now I can’t tell a joke to save my life, so I quickly searched my brain for something snappy and difficult to screw up so I wouldn’t be like “Oh wait, sorry it’s important to know that the sheep is supposed to be blue”. My time finally came and I realized a major bucket list moment: I am meeting David Sedaris. He asks how I am, and when he hears my accent asks if I’m an American, and I tell him that I am from Canada, and live here with my husband. He asks what I do for a living and I say that I work on a construction site, but that I am actually (kind of, sort of) a writer. “What genre?” he asks me. “Creative non-fiction…” and then I blather a bit girlishly how much I idolize his work and studied him in university. A flash of realization crosses his face: “You were the girl in the front row! Good question, I liked your question a lot”. He then elaborated on writing about people, and how sometimes you have to let pieces go if you can’t get permission. Or that sometimes people will think stories are about them but aren’t. “Sometimes I just pull them out of my ass”, he smiles. He’s signed both of our books and then asks me: “Do you have a joke for me?”. “Ah yes…what do a pimp and a cowboy have in common?” “What?” “They both know how to throw a good hoe-down”. He smiles, laughs, shares a joke about Jesus that I won’t repeat here, and hands us the books. “Nice to meet you”, he says before turning his attention to the person behind us in line. Ben and I went to a neighbourhood cafe to discuss the evening, and it occurred to me that I hadn’t read what he had written in the books. In mine in said: ‘To Alicia, I look forward to reading your book one day’, and in Ben’s: ‘To Ben, I dig your super wife’. Not an absentminded cartoon animal in sight. It was one of the best nights of my Australian life.
I really valued his advice and thoughts on the topic of personal writing, because I can honestly admit that that fear of offending people, of insulting them with my version of a memory, my version of the truth will damage very important relationships. It is this ultimately crippling self censorship that is at the root of my writer’s block. My personal essays often teeter on dark topics, and while I’m comfortable sharing them, I can’t help but wonder…what would my mother think? Do people want to know these things? Would people say: ‘no it didn’t happen like that?’. In Augusten Burroughs‘ memoir “Running with Scissors“, he ruthlessly describes his mapcap mother and emotionally distant father, and the perverted psychiatrist who he lived with when his mother had lost her mind.
This book is humorous but uncomfortable. Burroughs’ describes a homosexual relationship he had as a boy with an adult man, and how the family he lived with, a filthy vile lot, was perfectly accepting of it. In the copy I read, a later addition had an author’s note that describes the book as being ‘the truth as he remembered it’, a consequence of those family members arguing against his alleged memoir. Obviously, my life is nothing like that, but I still feel I need to tread a tightrope in which I feel comfortable writing about my messy, imperfect life and the relationships within, without making enemies of those I love. Though I am the writer of these stories, they do not belong solely to me. They are shared, they are ours and I hope that I have your support.