“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
“Writers are always selling someone out.”
David Sedaris published the most beautiful essay on the death of his youngest sister, Tiffany, and how her death has impacted his family. Like most grief narratives I’ve come across, it is a complex, non-linear account of what is lost and what is left. It is clear from this account (and from previous accounts he has written about his family) that his relationship with his sister was not uncomplicated. He lays out this truth and all the other truths that came before, as he discusses how her death has affected his family, and his self.
Most of the responses have been positive: Sedaris is a skilled memoirist, that rare writer who can draw a diverse and large audience into his very specific world. Like Joan Didion, he writes the personal as political without being obvious about it. Without referring to any tired tropes or resorting to cliches, he makes us relate to his story. I’ll find myself – me, a black, African, straight woman living in Cape Town – recognising in my bones a feeling described by a white, gay man in New York. That’s talent. Can you tell I’m a fan?
Some of the responses to Sedaris’s piece have been equivocal in their praise. In particular, a response by writer Sarah Arboleda questions the ethics of, as she calls it, “sharing someone else’s pain”. Arboleda writes
I understand that grief is a funny, tricky and wholly individual business. But I suppose what bothers me about Sedaris’s story is that this is the same sister that he wrote about in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim who, from the sound of it, repeatedly requested that he not write about her, or use her sad existence for witty little bon mots and anecdotes.
So knowing that she wasn’t pleased with this kind of “therapy through public forum” in life, I can’t imagine she would’ve been terribly happy with it being used in the circumstance of her death. Especially when most of this story is about Sedaris coming to terms with losing the identity of being part of a 6-child family and his mixed feelings of guilt and pride over his wealth.
This question – the question about the ethics of this kind of writing – is one that I grapple with constantly. I’ve been writing for years. It’s my coping mechanism, it’s how I process the world. It’s also something I enjoy doing: I feel incredibly capable when I write. Indeed, it is the only work I’ve ever done free from the usual debilitating self-doubt that marks other professional endeavours. I feel, with deep conviction and clarity, that it is my life’s work. In short, it makes me so frigging happy, Dear Reader! A few years ago, I realised that to make it work, to take my writing from the realm in which it is personal processing, journaling, really, and to turn it into actual work, I needed to start getting it out there. So, I started putting my work out there. And that meant sourcing material. Often, the material is defined by whatever platform I am writing for : feminist analyses for FeministsSA.com, personal essays on the theme of the week for the My First Time project, a piece on my hair for the ‘Hair!’ issue of a local women’s magazine and so on. But most times, I publish pieces inspired by my own life and the people in it. I write about my husband, and our inter-racial, inter-ability marriage, I write about my aunt, who died three months ago, I write about family.
Like David Sedaris, I wrote – and continue to write – about a family member who I was not close to at the time of her death, but who I grieve, and what agonies that grief has wrought. I make public the private, and, in so doing, drag the people I love into the public with me. How wise is that? How ethical is it to tell stories that aren’t mine alone, and to super-impose my public-private narrative upon those who share those stories? That first Joan Didion quote (can you tell I’m a fan??) above is a reflection of my relationship to something I see as both intensely personal survival strategy and craft. And, yes, I have noticed how many times she says “I” in that quote. So has she. Elsewhere, Didion has said
There you have three short unambiguous words that share a sound, and the sound they share is this:
In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions — with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating — but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility …
In a manner, she (and Arboleda) are right: it is an inherently selfish act to draw from the lives of those you love to publicly narrate shared experiences from a single standpoint.
But I also think that the “I”, the individual self who narrates the story is never as singular as we assume. As individuals, we are all collections of experiences, interpretations and narratives and entanglements with the people in our lives. When I put pen to paper to write about my husband, my aunt, my parents, friends I’ve lost, I am puzzling out the parts of the story that I own. The same can be said for David Sedaris. His sister didn’t like him writing about her, or about their relationship. But writing was how he was working through their estrangement, and through his relationships with the rest of his family. Writing is how he is working through his grief. And whilst writing puts his share of the story in the public realm, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is the only story. After I published a second piece on my aunt’s death, a piece in which I talk about her losing her baby sister, my mother called me. She thought the piece was beautiful, that I wrote well (I believe her exact words were “Good enough to be in O Magazine”), and she told me that whenever I wanted to talk about my aunt, whenever I wanted to ask her the questions that were – that still are – stuck in my throat, kept there by the fear and the pain, and the fear of more pain, I could go ahead. What I wrote didn’t replace what my mom knew about her sister, it certainly wasn’t the final word on the matter: it told my mom how I felt about my aunt. It added a piece to the rich mosaic that is that story.
We are the sum of our parts. My part is mostly written down. But it is just that – a part – and the writing of that part is medium through which the part is communicated. And I will qualify that communication, not as a way of hiding that I am, in fact, bully, as Didion suggests, but as a way of marking my writing as only a part, only a piece of an entire narrative, that belongs, in equal measure, as well as to me.