It’s usually the first question on the first day of my New York City Memoir workshops: “Can you talk… about drawing from your life experience to write, and discovering that which is sacred and off-limits material?”
Only this time, it came not from a novice student, but through my iPod headphones from a veteran writer and host of the radio show, Writers on Writing (KUCI-FM, Irvine, California). And as Marrie Stone put the question to Molly Gloss, her novelist guest, she fused “sacred” and “off-limits” into a single term, winding the ideas together like the twin strands of DNA.
I expect this concern in my level 1 workshops, from writers eager to tell their stories but unwilling to sacrifice something precious in the process. Hearing it posed by a professional like Stone, though, I knew: Not only fledgling writers believe that when something is sacred to you, writing about it could be sacrilege.
But what would A Farewell To Arms read like, if Ernest Hemingway had refused to write about his heartbreaking affair with Agnes von Kurowsky? What if Maya Angelou knew why the caged bird sings—but wouldn’t tell anyone? Exclude what human beings consider sacred, and what is left?
In truth, nothing in the word “sacred” means off-limits. Its many definitions include “entitled to reverence,” “holy,” and “deserving veneration.” My favorite is from the Random House Unabridged Dictionary: “…secured against violation, infringement, etc., as by reverence or sense of right.”
Secure it against violation. This is what moves us to believe that if we hold something sacred, we must not write about it. But to write about something is not necessarily to violate it.
“If more of us shared those moments, those sacred moments when we are at our most human, I really feel like it would be a better world,” said Jill Christman, author of the memoir Darkroom: A Family Exposure. “Just because we are touching that nerve of humanity doesn’t mean we are lowering [it].”
Maybe the first step would be for writers to view ourselves not so much as pirates on a pillage, but as lay ministers in a kind of church. We identify the sacraments. We choose which ones to share, and as we do, we treat them with reverence.
You can’t have a lay ministry without a liturgy. So I offer here a few guidelines for writers, suggestions for the care and treatment of sacred things.
“Real, important problems have come about as a result of writing about your family, writing about your past,” said Susan Shapiro, author of a novel, several memoirs, and the nonfiction book Unhooked that she wrote with her former therapist. “People do get divorced, disowned, lose jobs. College kids put things on their blogs and then apply for a job at Goldman Sachs and can’t figure out why they don’t get it.”
The smart writer respects her fears, but doesn’t let them dictate the story, Shapiro said. Had Shapiro given in to hers, she might never have written any of her books, especially her memoir Five Men Who Broke My Heart, which required her to track down and interview several ex-boyfriends, and to write about her marriage, which is sacred to her.
Shapiro acknowledged her own fears about writing about her marriage, that exposing it in public would somehow weaken it. And then she pushed ahead and wrote about it anyway. She discovered she could write about intimate moments she thought would be off limits, as long as she handled them with care. She focused on her own story, and agreed to her husband’s request to change his name and some other identifying details.
“Easy decision,” she said. “I didn’t want to hurt him. But I also thought that was a really honest book.”
Identify your sacred things. Write them down. Why are they sacred to you? And how, exactly, do you believe writing about them will violate them?
Anger, a longing for vengeance, or catharsis, an urge to set the record straight— all of these less-than-lofty motives have long drawn writers to the page, and not always with ill results. Traces of the anger that helped propel John Steinbeck to write The Grapes of Wrath and Langston Hughes to write The Ways of White Folks may linger, yet those books transcend any one emotion. Layered, nuanced and with rich, complicated characters, each evokes a nation and a people both deeply flawed and capable of great humanity.
Molly Gloss, (the novelist to whom radio host Stone posed her sacred things question), said in an interview that when she started writing her novel The Hearts of Horses, she was pretty ticked.
“One of the reasons I wanted to do this was … I [felt] betrayed by the popular representations of death and dying,” Gloss said. “In these depictions people die fully conscious, holding the hand of their loved ones, able to say the exact words they want to say at that moment and when they die, their hand loosely falls to the clean bed. None of it even remotely resembled my own experience.”
Gloss’s husband, Ed, died of cancer at home in 2000. When she started her novel, she believed she would write it all, everything they endured during his long illness and death. But as the story developed, she realized what she had to say wasn’t simply about her husband’s death, or even only about dying in general. It was also about living:
She was so very tired, it was hard to sort out what she felt; it was hard afterward to remember if she had even cried, and if she had, what the tears were about. Later she would realize that these were the first minutes of his unending absence and of her beginning to experience a kind of meaninglessness in the world, a nullity that she would be years overcoming…
Once she was honest with herself about why she wanted to write about dying, it freed her to allow the story to find a different purpose, one larger than her own experience, and she cut several scenes drawn from her life. “I wanted to write what’s it’s like for the person who is dying and for the person who survives,” she said, “the person who is left behind.”