Friday, March 27, 2009

Support Your Answer.

"Question number one: Explain Western history. Be specific; support your answer."
--History class pop quiz set by Chuck Noblet [Stephen Colbert], Strangers with Candy: "Invisible Love"

I read David Sedaris until midnight last night and fell asleep thinking of wicked funny stories I could write up about my relatives. But I woke up once again wondering, would any of these meet the Buddhist teaching "Do not use your words to cause harm"? Mmm, maybe not. But some of them would definitely count as "Meaningful talk."

So, this morning, I set myself a pop quiz.

1. What would be my intention in writing about my family and other animals, liberation and enlightenment or revenge?
I plead the fifth.

2. How 'bout if they never, ever read your stuff?
Uh-huh. Until you get famous and they're sitting in an airport lounge one day and overhear someone screaming with laughter, "Listen to this!" and reading out loud to a friend the part where you've most clearly and intimately exposed them.

3. If you write about people who're dead, does it matter?
Hungry ghosts.

4. Can I bear to muck about in this material from the past, some of which is radioactive?
Judging by how quavery I feel after writing even the most emotionally remote post I can, maybe not.

5. Can I bear to do the work?
I'm old enough to know that light, feathery writing appears usually only after you've chipped away a few tons of granite. I'm lazy.

6. Where's the line between honesty and privacy; between being funny and being pathetic?
I don't know, but I know what it looks like when you overshoot it. Example: a homily in which the priest told us--no doubt after making a brave decision to break a taboo--that there was a time when he engaged in a lot of "solitary sexual activity." God bless him, I think he was trying to talk about God's everpresent mercy, but for a long time afterward, any one of my pew-pals only had to whisper "S.S.A." to make the others writhe in exquisite embarrassment, like junior high kids.

7. How much do I want to expose myself, much less the others?
Yes, no, maybe, it depends.

8. Why?
Answers will be graded on penmanship.


bink said...


Because we want to laugh...sometimes until we cry... sometimes with horror of recognition.

Do we ever laugh at things we don't recognize? Even we we seem far removed from the object of our laughter isn't there usually a recognition based on fear that we'll go there or be caught out in our secrets.?

Those are serious, not rhetorical, questions.

Darwi said...

To understand and come to peace with what happened.
I did it, first in just my diary. And did not helped.
Then I wrote the letters to my parents telling them exactly how did they make me feel as I was growing up and now. And posted that letters to them. I did the similar to my grandparents (but since they are dead, I made point to go to their graves and read out what I wrote in the letter) . And this helped. After that I felt free to live my own life. Finally.

momo said...

Good exercise!
!. I've kept a diary or a journal since I was quite young. I don't do it as much any more, but I've always found writing things down to be a way to think out loud what people didn't want me to think or know. The process was often consoling, enlightening, or just a safe place to whine. I have not tried to publish (either on a blog or in another way) most of what I've written, but blogging some times affords me the same opportunities, although I have set strict boundaries about what I consider suitable to share.
2. I'm reading Stephen Fry's memoir, and he often writes an aside about how he has changed a name or disguised the person, but also will name some people and say "where are they now?", even writing about how he sought them out or talked to them about the past. Often, he relates a harrowing event, but then says it didnt really seem so awful at the time. I'm not quite sure how coy he is being or if this is sincere.
3. Does it matter to whom? to you? to people who knew them? to the hungry ghost? I think it can matter a lot to tell your story, and sometimes that means telling your perceptions of other people.
4. my life is often ruled by inertia.
5. S.S.A. or T.M.I ha! the line is often in the artistry, but sometimes in the situation. the story you told about the woman who worked on forgiveness is a harrowing story, but her act of telling it has powerful effects on others. What is being exchanged in the act of telling one's stories in public? Many times people tell harsh stories about their lives, but their readers are grateful to discover that someone has shared their experience and survived.
7. the key word is "expose." that sounds like an act of making one's self vulnerable, or maybe being an exhibitionist. Both of those things would make me hesitate, and that's one reason why I tell some stories out loud to people but don't write them down in public. But I also sometimes think that some parts of my family's story might be very cool to share. Annie Lamott calls the voices in your ear that feed your self-doubt as a writer "Radio KFUKed".
8. Why? Yes, no, maybe, that depends. (good line, I'm stealing it!)

fresca said...

BINK: I do think recognition is one of the big pumps at work behind laughter: either the reassurance of recognition--the way we laugh in a movie when we're frightened and the shadow turns out to be harmless (the sort of thing "Shaun of the Dead plays with)--or as you say, laughing AT something that we recognize but are uncomfortable with in our own selves (Sedaris creates a lot of that).

I haven't read much about this, but laughter seems like a variation on religious activities meant to protect, to ward off bad spirits; but also to religious activities of praise....? So, is laughter a kind of prayer?
Anne Lamott says there are 2 basic prayers:
"Help me" and "Thank you."
Much to think on.

DARWI: "To understand and come to peace." Yes! That's central for me too.

What a powerful example you give of reading to your grandparents' grave--touching on my question, "Does it matter if they're dead?" Yes, it matters to us.

Now, whether or not you would ever make those letters public, say, on your blog, that's a different question altogether, I imagine...

MOMO: That's so great you took the pop quiz, and let me tell you, your penmanship earns you 100%! : )
In #1, like Darwi, you write about private writing. I've always done that too, but more and more I just blog, and I wonder about this desire to make my words public in some form...
However, unlike you, I haven't worked out what my boundaries are. Which is why I'm flopping about on the blog about "why write?" topics.

2. I want to read that Fry memoir. I've wondered about David Sedaris's use of names--he'll talk about some boy from school, for instance. Is he using his real name? Do they ever contact him?
How much do I want to risk that in my own life/writing, even though I'm not famous, it's not safe to assume no one I might write about will ever read this.
3. Upon reflection, I want to write about the dead with the same respect I'd use toward the person if they were living--
but that still leaves the question, how much respect is that, and what is respect?

4. Inertia! I love that word. Really more accurate than "laziness." Newton was right.

5. Yes! "The line is often in the artistry: or the situation--both apply here.
The situation--talking about sex from the pulpit--is a stand-up's nightmare. The Church is generally at a junior high level about sex, so you've got a hostile audience. And priests are, meaning no disrespect, in a freakish relationship to sex. Certainly this one was trying to be open but his own discomfort was obvious.
Then, this particular guy was no artist with language. The euphemism he came up with was so stilted and the setting was so infelicitous that it was bound to be a disaster. I give him A for effort, F for effect.

7. Yep--making one's self vulnerable--that's the one I meant. It reminds me of the vulnerability of travel--how out of my comfort zone can I stand to be, how out of place, how at sea?
Anne Lamott is a great example--she tells very intimate stories but I never feel she's using other people, the way David Sedaris tells us he uses his family.
But really, I don't know--maybe it's an illusion and Lamott's friends are not OK with her story telling. I wonder if she ever writes about that.

8. It's all yours!