Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Robin Black, guest blogger: Exposure in Fiction

In gearing up to do a post this month - with many thanks as ever to Aggie! - I read the recent ones by Dani Shapiro, a friend and a wonderful writer. I was struck by her excellent explanation of why memoir, for her, isn't exposing in anything like the way that say having someone read a journal would be. She writes that memoirs are not "raw or confessional" but the result of years of "building and polishing," that there is a strong element of intentionality and there are conscious, skilled artistic decisions made about what to share and how to share it.

Reading Dani's words reminded me of something I have often thought. I write both fiction and personal essays, and while my fiction is not at all autobiographical, I find having stories out in the world infinitely more exposing than I do having strangers read essays which are about my actual life. Memoir may convey facts, some of which might be deemed "personal," but stories, no matter how polished and intentionally crafted, still have the dream-like quality of revealing our obsessions, while also exposing biases we don't even know we have, our notions of love, our moral landscape, values, sexual attitudes and so on. This isn't because we write about ourselves and it isn't about confusing the author with the character. It happens because we create universes in which all of these elements come into play, and because when you write a story that has that all-important quality of mattering, you inevitably share with the world what matters to you.

What interests me about this right now, beyond obsessively wondering how to keep my nerves calm as my first story collection hits the stores three weeks from today revealing who-knows-what about me, is the impact of that exposing aspect on people who are early on in their writing lives and whose hold on the pursuit may still be tentative.

So often, the dreaded Writer's Block is discussed as either a mechanical function, a view that generally spawns the advice write every day no matter what; or as a problem of quality often summed up: I can't write anything good. Increasingly, though, I wonder how much these stuck periods are less about forming good habits or about changes in the quality of our work and more about worries of exposure, anxieties related to making one's own sense of the world all too clear.

A few years back, I started to realize that every writer I knew had in common the experience of feeling silenced early on in life. It might have been politically based in some way or the result of a family dynamic in which speaking up about one's perceptions of reality seemed taboo or simply a feeling of difference that needed to be camouflaged; but soon enough, I found, some such story would emerge. This is also true of a lot of people who aren't writers, but in my experience this sensation of being silenced is strikingly prominent in the narratives my writer friends tell about themselves. And it's certainly an important part of my own story about myself.

As I realized this, I began to wonder about the role of those early inhibiting forces in a writer's on-going life. It seemed implausible to me that the silencing voices, once so forceful, are themselves ever wholly silenced; and at a certain very frustrating point in my own writing life it became helpful for me to envision an argument inside myself, at all times, between those internalized inhibitors and the part of me that feels urgency about speaking out, that feels at times as though my life depends on expressing myself. As a result, instead of viewing my own blocked periods as failures of discipline or of confidence in my work, I began to see them as periods in which the silencing voices were winning that argument.

The impact of this was first to make me angry - how dare they try to shut me up and shut me down again?! - giving me a certain emotional oomph as I tried to put those voices back in their place, which was the distant past. And then this concept also led me to remind myself that I needn't ever share anything I write with anyone. If the impulse to write had somehow gotten mixed up with old taboos on speaking out, then the road back into writing might be to allow myself room to do it without the assumption that anyone else would ever see it. In other words, I lowered the stakes, and tried to envision writing more like an extension of thinking than like a communication to anybody else. Just for a while, just until my resolve toward expression was strengthened again.

Now, I'm very disapproving of writers who claim that an approach that worked for them is the one other people must follow. (A subject for another post: Advice about Advice.) So I'm not suggesting that viewing a blocked period as the reassertion of old taboos against expression will resonate for everyone else or even anyone else. But it's been tremendously helpful to me so I thought it worth sharing here.

Also helpful to me, during these months and weeks of waiting for my book to emerge, has been the chance to have this conversation here. Again, many thanks to Aggie! I'm looking forward to meeting all the Well-Read Donkey readers and writers when I read at Kepler's next month!

(The picture is of me reading the only copy of my book that I have ever seen - a huge thrill for this first time author!)


  1. How interesting:

    "stories, no matter how polished and intentionally crafted, still have the dream-like quality of revealing our obsessions, while also exposing biases we don't even know we have, our notions of love, our moral landscape, values, sexual attitudes and so on..."

    You've really touched on something here.

    It must be why I cringe when I pass my work off to my critique partner, my writer's group, or even my husband. It's my thoughts: no filters, no diplomacy. It's me as each character--me as a politician, me as a college professor, me as a slave woman, slave man, ghost, historian, overseer! Who else could it be? Maybe that's why fear is such a part of writing. Conquering it means something personal.

    Thanks for this post. Very thought provoking.

  2. Thanks, Erika. I think that's exactly right about the fear: "Conquering it means something personal." I'm really glad if the post brings on some good thinking!

  3. I had a conversation with my wife this weekend about the novel I'm writing. I told her, if it were ever published, that there would certainly be a few people whom I wouldn't want to read the book (like her parents). She said, a bit testy, "Why, it's fiction right?" In the moment, I didn't really know what to say. You're right, though, Robin, I always feel at once very weird and at home in my fiction, and I certainly wonder how much of my weirdness will come shining through.

    Your thoughts on silence are every interesting, too, Robin. Thanks for the post...

  4. Some good stuff here, especially that phrase "the dream-like quality of revealing our obsessions." But my favorite thing is the picture!