Luminous Muse

LuminousMuse

LuminousMuse
Location
Massachusetts, USA
Birthday
September 20
Title
Retired composer, music publisher and producer. Writer.
Company
Manchester Music Library
Bio
My memoir "Escaping the Giant" and my thriller "You Can't Write About Me" are both finished and with an agent. If he can't sell them I will self-publish, so one way or another they will be available soon. This blog and my memoir have enjoyed a vibrant relationship: I've repurposed bits of the memoir, which have then found their way into later drafts of the book. I didn't plan it that way, but it's a nice way to work.

MY RECENT POSTS

JANUARY 28, 2013 10:07AM

You Can't Write About Me!

Rate: 14 Flag

Dylan-at-Ginsbergs-Typewriter 

(Dylan at Ginsberg's typewriter) 

A few days ago I got an email confirming that something I suggested to someone a few months ago had resulted in a cool thing. Nothing scandalous, but it made a fun story.

Something. Someone. Thing. Nothing. No, this is not an exercise in bad (i.e., purposely vague) writing. Please read on.

 So I thought -why not blog about it? I asked the source of the email and they said, “No! Under no circumstances! You can’t write about it!” As I value my relationship with this person, I agreed. So I can’t tell you who or what or when or anything.

“You can’t write.” Not the first time I’ve heard that.

Right about now if you, the reader, are anything like me, or anything like anybody else, you’re getting irritated. Tell me! Come on, just a hint. Promise, I won’t tell anyone. (Sure you won’t.)  But my word is good.  I Ain’t tellin.

Here’s the thing. You’re not the only one feeling frustrated here. There’s nothing quite like being a writer and stumbling on a good story, only to have someone tell you you can’t tell it. It’s almost physically painful.

You Can’t Write About Me is the title of my first novel. It begins with a guy who’s writing a memoir and calls up an old girlfriend. She’s happy to hear from him until she finds out what he’s doing. She commands, “You can’t write about me,” and hangs up.

 

He sits there skewered on the horns of a terrible dilemma. Yeah, when they were together it was her life, and she deserves her privacy. But that time was also a piece of his life, and he deserves to write about it. Being a fictional writer, with no lawyers or burly husbands or actual propriety to worry about, he writes about her. Then he writes about other people who don’t want him to. Before you know it he’s wishing he hadn’t. (No spoilers, but suffice it to say he has more than his guilt and a pissed off ex after him.)

 

Les_Vampires 

Janet Malcolm of the New Yorker once wrote, “Writers are vampires.” She was talking about Joe McGinniss’s book about Jeffery MacDonald, the “green beret killer,” how the writer had befriended the killer, then betrayed him by writing a scathing (and bestselling) expose of him. 

We’re all vampires, all of us writers. I’m not proud of it, but I’ll admit to honing my long incisors before venturing out in public. Never know when you’ll get hungry. 

 

Nobody’s safe. An old, old friend got in touch after 40 years. It was great to talk to him. It was great seeing the PBS piece he sent celebrating a long illustrious career fighting injustice. But by the time I was done watching I’d ripped off his beard, hair and high school sport and grafted them onto a character in my latest book.

 

Nobody who eats in the same restaurant with me is safe. Don’t talk too loud or I’ll mine you for dialog. And don’t even think of fighting. I love that stuff! Your hipster fedora, your girlfriend’s vocal creak, the exact microbrew you’re right now quaffing are all slotted away awaiting reincarnation in a scene I’ll write.

 

I spent a long time working on a memoir about my father and me and the 1960s. My deepest motivation was a desire to tell the truth. I’d never had the courage to tell my father the truth when he was alive, nor he the courage to tell me his. All the members of my family, including me, had our lips somehow magically sealed so that we could never tell each other what we wanted, what we felt. We all shoved everything that mattered into a great closet filled with clattering skeletons, whispered desires and unspoken sorrows.

 

I found that telling my truth in a memoir was much harder than I thought it would be. There were living people whose secrets I could not betray. And there were things even the dead did not want revealed. Hardest was finding a way to craft my truth into words that someone would want to read. My biggest problem was that I was too close to the material. I couldn’t achieve the essential quality of narrative distance. And without it I couldn’t tell what was good story, and what was just stuff  that carried a potent emotion charge for me, but would just bore a reader. After seven drafts, and seven years –like something in a fairy tale - I let it rest.

 

And started writing fiction. I didn’t do it because I’d always dreamed of being a novelist. On the contrary, I consider novelists an impoverished, whiny, catty, miserable lot, somewhere in the nether ranks of society between musicians and psychokillers.

 

It was not ambition that brought me to fiction, but the solution to the problem of “You can’t write about me.” No, I can’t write about you, but I can write about my fictional character Ray, and everyone he knows.

 

Writing fiction also solved the thorny problem of getting the right narrative distance. I was surprised to discover that my made up stories (which the reader might suspect had quite a bit of real life woven in) were actually truer than my memoir. Yes, the “facts” were made up. But the emotional truth was there. Working at the canvas of a novel I found it easy to step back, see what my brushstrokes had evoked, see the whole, because it was not my life. Not my life, but my truth.

 

So I’m very sorry, for you, and for me, that I can’t tell you this neat story I heard this week. But if you hang around my work, I will tell it in one form or another. I promise.

 

 

 

 

 

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Comments

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I disagree. You can write a memoir. You can write what you consider the truth. To offshore the truth of your story is to do yourself a disservice. The best memoirs, I feel, are those that teach, and writing a memoir [yeah, I've written one] is not only a cathartic experience for the writer, it is also a revelatory experience for the reader.
You said:
I spent a long time working on a memoir about my father and me and the 1960s. My deepest motivation was a desire to tell the truth. I’d never had the courage to tell my father the truth when he was alive, nor he the courage to tell me his. All the members of my family, including me, had our lips somehow magically sealed so that we could never tell each other what we wanted, what we felt. We all shoved everything that mattered into a great closet filled with clattering skeletons, whispered desires and unspoken sorrows.
I spent a long time working on a memoir about my father and me and the 1960s. My deepest motivation was a desire to tell the truth. I’d never had the courage to tell my father the truth when he was alive, nor he the courage to tell me his. All the members of my family, including me, had our lips somehow magically sealed so that we could never tell each other what we wanted, what we felt. We all shoved everything that mattered into a great closet filled with clattering skeletons, whispered desires and unspoken sorrows."

To turn away from meaningful dialogue with those you love is to turn away from some of the more important posibilities that truthful conversation brings.
I get what you are saying here. Fiction is powerful stuff. Not so much factual truth but emotional truth that elevates human interactions. Memoirs are fine but when you described your fiction as working on a blank canvas it makes me think it is the more creative of the two. Take a memory and enhance to to the real truth. That is Art.
I don't know if it even matters anymore to try and draw a distinction between making things up and writing for the internet
I have some things I wanna say but don't want to spell them out as such - if only to avoid lawsuits. I've started a novel to deal with some of them...interestingly, the novel has taken on a life of its own and may not do what I originally intended. However, it will cover other kinds of betrayal and *whatever*, so may do the trick...
Interesting post! So many good things here. Hilarious, comparing writers to vampires but I don't agree with it; a vampire is predatory and soulless and the vast majority of writers I'd venture to guess, are not. I don't think most writers intend to hurt or exploit when they've discovered a great story. I say MOST; of course there's always the rotten apple but I think at the heart of it most writers are after the truth, the truth being telling the best story they possibly can.

I've always liked David Sedaris' feelings about what he does; he said his family is wary of him; being around him is now dangerous. They wonder what he's going to write about them next, but he likens himself to - I think he called himself, a junk man or a harmless peddler - just going through life picking up bits of this and pieces of that, examining them, wondering what he should use or discard or make into something more interesting.

Re. Joe McGinniss: I read that book long ago and don't remember the specifics but - did he really betray MacDonald? I thought Jeffery Macdonald reached out to him and they hammered out some sort of agreement, that he'd be able to tell the story as he saw it. I could be wrong but that's what I always thought. Even so, I don't think the book had anything to do with his conviction did it?

And writing a memoir? A memoir is your version of the truth. Of course it should be as accurate as you can make it but the way I see it, if you asked three different people for an account of the same event you'll get three different versions like the blind men feeling an elephant and coming up with 3 different animals. Telling the truth while trying to maintain emotional distance is very hard - but after 7 years, have you thought about going back to it?
When you said the word vampire I thought of how clever you are and right. Nothing like any of us sucking the life out of just about anything to tell a story. There are many things I can not write about because 1/ people would not believe me and deem it fiction or 2/ respect.

How in the heck can I be a bonafied vampire with respect? Sorry to hear you left your father's draft on the side. Maybe some day it can be done.

HUGGGGGGGGGGG
When Philip Roth was a graduate student in English at the University of Chicago, he said the favorite form of threat among his fellow students was "If you keep pissing me off I'm going to put you in my novel."
I wish I could write fiction, so I know how it feels not to be able to tell the real story.
[r] interesting take. makes me think of what happened to poor Truman C. when he used his laser-like secrets-gathering talent to skewer his friends. he thought they got it, that was who he was and they would not be pissed. wtf was he thinking? they loved the schadenfreude high from other people's exposure by him, which doesn't come when it is about THEM!!!!

Long ago when I was a teacher and working with kids from extenuatingly tough situations, a fellow teacher became obsessed that the writer side of me was in that dimension of teaching sheerly for their "stories" to be exploited in my writing. As a workaholic teacher I didn't even have time to write then. And my passion for teaching and working with kids was so not part of an automatic and calculated writing agenda. I grew as a person and probably a writer working with those kids, but I was so not a vampire on their experiences.

But as I said, this person must have gotten burned and raised the issue more than a few times. She was a friend of a friend I met up with from time to time.

This story also makes me think of photographers who instead of helping others in a horrifying crisis record it, even importantly for history through the decades, via camera. I'm thinking, put the damn camera down and help a fellow human being.

But there is also an intense gravity of the artist to the artist's art.

And when we do write, especially memoirs, there is in some situations a backlash of guilt and awareness of one's presumptiveness on others involved as you say in the scenarios, even a sense of artistic-motivated social cannibalism, to illustrate others according to our imaginations and senses of reality.

best,
libby
Fiction is probably as good a way of getting around friendship betrayal as there is. I can appreciate the frustration though. Guess we'll just have to read your fiction in the off-chance you didn't cover your tracks completely.

And good to see you back here Luminous.
I've often been asked why I haven't written a memoir about my unusually storied life and always answered flippantly, "People have to die first." I'm right, but you described the dilemma with sense, sensitivity and sensibility. Thank you. I'll be reading your excellent writing with a new eye now.
Muse! This is piece is so interesting to me, as I have just been grappling with the very same issue.
Please see my current piece Stalking a Beautiful Writer. I have re-posted it for a variety of reasons, mostly that I do not want to curb my self-expression because of a desire to please others. In it, I created a fictional character based on many people in my life, threw in some of my own fears and obsessions, and out came with a story.

The first time I posted it a few weeks ago, it received an EP, and considerable reaction from many people who felt I had written about them. It disappeared off the front page in a day, which is surprising since many of the EPs remain there for a long time. I deleted it because I did not want to hurt feelings.

I hurt my own instead. My imagination is my own, and I am very slowly learning to reign it in to make peace. As much as people I know may find my writing scary, it is much scarier for me. It's my imagination running around naked out here.

Rated, and I am adding you as a favorite, for sure. Well done.
I'm a fiction writer and have friends, dear friends, who have that fear. Luckily, I've reached an age when I have plenty to write about without having to write about them. It's not worth the loss of their friendship, if they are real friends--and that is how I create them.

Rated.
I warn all I know that I am a soul-sucker looking for novel material for my writing. That said, I like Larry McMurty's title to his first novel: All My Friends are Going to be Strangers.

How true.