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.”
Is it possible to liken your mother to a witch, and still treat your relationship with reverence?
It is if you’re Marya Hornbacher, author of a novel and several works of nonfiction.
Hornbacher felt pulled to write an honest, “non-glamorous” book about her struggle with eating disorders. Yet she knew that if she did, she’d have to write about her family as “being very uncool at that time.”
So she came up with a strategy: She interviewed her parents and friends. She showed every draft of every scene to the people who appear in them. If she was no longer in touch with someone in the story, she gave them pseudonyms and altered identifying details— and alerted the reader to the changes.
And she built one absolute firewall: If someone she loves read a scene and told her, “I don’t remember it that way,” she cut it.
“Partly it was just habit, the habit of journalism, but also it was the deliberate act of putting myself in somebody else’s shoes,” Hornbacher said. “In order to talk about how events piled up, I had to talk about my family in a less than flattering fashion, so it had to be an even-handed fashion.”
Rather than killing her honesty, Hornbacher’s collaborative approach gave her the safety she needed to write freely.
The result is the unsparing Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia, which includes this passage of Hornbacher flying home, drunk, for Christmas:
My mother picked me up. Her face was tight, her mouth pressed together in a thin line. … She gave me a stiff hug. We walked to the luggage carousel, barely speaking. Surely she was worried, that’s all it was. But I was only fifteen, and my mother is a difficult woman to read. Her face clenched with— distaste? irritation? what had I done now? I said, sarcastically: Well, you’re glad to see me. She made that tssk noise and said, Oh Marya. I said, What? She tssked and turned her head, moved quickly, professionally, efficiently. We swooped through the airport like witches on twin brooms.
Hornbacher’s system of collaboration works for her, but of course, it won’t work for everyone. Each writer must invent their own. Susan Breen, for her novel The Fiction Class, needed two.
Breen’s story follows a writing instructor as she shuttles between her classroom and her mother’s nursing home, and Breen (a colleague at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop) mined her own life to write both threads.
To develop the ten characters that make up the titular fiction class, Breen worked like a gardener—cultivating, pruning, weeding. She scrutinized each character’s personality, dress, speaking style, physical appearances, even their smallest mannerisms, for resemblances to any of her real-life students. Common characteristics—shyness, or bolting from the classroom, for example—could stay. But she plucked out anything distinctive, anything that too closely depicted an actual student.
“I didn’t want the novel to be somehow hurtful, so I placed…constraints on myself as I was writing: Is this going to be mistaken? Will anyone see themselves in it?” Breen said. “If they would, I’d take that out.”
That approach wouldn’t work for the mother-daughter portions of the novel, though. For one thing, the story draws on Breen’s real-life relationship with her own mother. She died in 2004, after caring for Breen’s father through his protracted battle with Multiple Sclerosis, then winding up in a nursing home herself. Through her trials, Breen’s mother developed a wicked sense of humor and a steely determination, which sometimes made Breen’s visits with her so fractious they could border on torture.
But once Breen began teaching fiction at Gotham, their relationship blossomed anew. The classes, and writing in general, became something mother and daughter could talk about without discord, tugging them gradually toward rapprochement, and understanding.
Breen did not want to merely mirror her experience with her mother; she did want to say something about the healing power of writing, especially through adversity. Needing to write about her mother with reverence, she approached those passages in her book as though she were once again paying a visit to her mother in the nursing home.
“When she died,” Breen said, “writing about her was a way to be with her again.”
Be Ruthless—With Yourself
Say you’re a doctor who is also a writer. And say you’re a good doctor, whose first priority is in treating your patients, not mining them for story fodder. How do you write meaningful stories without writing about your patients?
You don’t, said Danielle Ofri, author of Medicine in Translation, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Bellevue Literary Review, and a practicing physician at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. Ofri writes essays about medical ethics, the injustices of the U.S. healthcare system, and her own decision-making. It would be impossible to do that without writing about her patients.
Like Breen and Hornbacher, Ofri has a strategy: She obtains patients’ permission to write about them when possible. She abstains from drawing conclusions about them. And she puts their wellbeing above all else.
“Ultimately,” she said, “if I feel that it would be harmful to the patient, I just put the essay aside.”
She also makes sure that her essays are not merely a retelling of her patient’s dramas— she keeps the focus on medicine, on society, and on herself.
“Living Will,” an essay from her book Incidental Findings, opens with a description of an unconscious man, attached to a ventilator, who had endured so many health crises that Ofri double checked to “verify that he was indeed alive.”
Plagued by migraines and crippling arthritis and heart trouble, he could neither work or have hobbies. He and his wife barely spoke; his mother and sister died, then his daughter, even his dog. Ofri’s patient had stopped taking one of his medications and quickly admits what she suspects. “Why should I live this life?” he asks her. “You tell me.”
At that moment, the essay shifts its focus to Ofri’s struggles with the law, medical ethics, and her own conscience.
The medico-legal issues were clear: a suicidal patient is prevented from committing suicide, even against his will, period. But the shades of gray needled me. My patient didn’t want his life, and I wasn’t sure it was ethical to force him to continue living it.
Ashamed to reveal my heresies to anyone, I secretly toyed with my doubts, picking at them as one does a loose tooth, perversely finding pleasure in its pain. …What if I discharged him, knowing full well that he’d stop taking his life-saving medicines? What if I turned my head and let him kill himself, as he so desperately wanted to do? There are those who say that all suicidal thoughts are products of depression, but Mr. Reston had been assiduously treated with medications and psychotherapy for decades. Perhaps he was being entirely rational. Who was I to stand in his way?
Then the toothache would burrow down to the raw nerve: What kind of evil doctor was I to even consider not protecting my patient from his violent tendencies?
“We work fast, we talk fast, we eat fast, we walk fast,” Ofri said. “Writing is a sacred experience because when I slow down to think on the page, I am able to engage in discovery. I learn about my patients, about my profession, and about myself.”
Something happened to P.F. Thomése as he wrote the memoir Shadowchild. Speaking at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York City, he said, initially, he sought only to preserve the life of his daughter, who died as a baby.
“My wife and I had an empty cradle. [If] I wouldn’t have written about it, we would have had nothing,” he said. “In writing my book, I saved my family, what was dissolved by the death of my child.”
But Shadowchild transcends one family’s loss. His book brings a common language to lives beyond his own, and to experiences beyond grief and loss:
The first night, with her in between us. Full-moon light through the attic windows, the pillows, the sheets, the wallpaper, everything silver and blue. Just like then, the first night you stayed with me and I was unable to fathom my luck. … now that she’s lying here in her first moonlight, her first bed, her first world, nothing else matters. All the carefully constructed explanations collapse at a breath, like paper towers of Babel on an overworked desk.
Christman, author of Darkroom, had a similar experience in writing her book. It ends with a scene following the memorial for her fiancé, who died when she was 21. After the service atop a mountain, Christman stayed behind. Alone, Christman touched her fingers to her beloved’s ashes, and after a years-long battle with bulimia, she swallowed them.
“It was one of the most sacred moments of my life, probably the most sacred until the births of my children,” Christman said. “It’s a moment that I felt honored him to write about.”
When we bring the sacred to the page, when we write with honesty and reverence, what we get in return is revelation and understanding. In publishing stories about sacred things, we share our revelation and understanding with other human beings, and doing so, we achieve another kind of sacrament, one that is sacred because it is shared:
It’s called Communion.
This essay originally appeared in The Writer.