March 31st, 2019

I’m having a difficult time committing myself to a form for social media/online presentation. Loads of ideas, and little follow-through.

I have to admit, I wrote more (and better perhaps) when I wrote offline with the conscious choice to not share any of it.

I’m working my head around that experience still: What it means to write. And how that is different from what it means to “be a writer”.

It’s been my experience that the writing is easy, but I have no clue how to/no desire to perform the sales aspect – the promotional effort that is necessary to reach readers. I’m using the word “perform” intentionally.

Today on the Tate Modern’s Instagram account I saw an incredible portrait of a new mother. It touched me deeply. A woman holding a newborn to her bare breast.  Her hair is messy, her face incredibly pale. She’s wearing those gauzy hospital underwear that hold those ungainly post-birth sanitary pads in place. The photo brings back all the sensual memories of that time. The pain, the heat, the foreignness of my body, the immediacy of my body. The “other” in my arms. The smells. The animal smells, not the talcum.

One woman commented (why do I ever read comments on social media?) that it was an “unflattering photo”. Then she proceeded to describe her post-birth portrait, which is proof that performative documentation existed well before Instagram.

My first thought was judgmental. I conjured a vague image of someone who has never seen the ugly side of life – or perhaps a coward who doesn’t want acknowledge it. A harsh stereotype of a southern belle who glosses over the unpleasantness. “Oh, fiddle-dee-dee. I’ll think about that tomorrow.”

It is an unkind way to contextualize someone’s desire to create and document beautiful moments from a life. (And a stereotype is a tight sieve through which to filter the complexities of a human being.)

I use that phrase intentionally, too: “create and document beautiful moments”.

From one perspective, the idea that art needs to wallow in the ugly that we want to avert our eyes from is condescending in terms of respecting the life experiences that other people have and how they choose to deal with them.

Not everyone needs to be confronted with a mimesis of each of life’s horrors, nor do they need to be overwhelmed with expressionistic/exhibitionistic sharing of other people’s feelings in order to “understand” or “appreciate”, or feel empathy for other people.

Not everyone is healed by a performance of their pain.

Isn’t the drive to create a beautiful moment from the complexity of such an experience as real and as authentic as it is to focus on the ugly? Can’t a glam shot of a new mother in her clean sheets also be interpreted as an expressionistic portrait of the joy inherent in the moment?

Staged is staged. Regardless of the fact that we seem to unconsciously hold up the “ugly” as authentic, and the beautiful as false or narcissistic. Could a case be made for our fascination with our own flaws as being more honest than our filtered selfies?

I think of my grandmother who would stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the ugly “truths” about our family history. She rarely denied them outright – but rather let them slide by, “Oh, do you really think it was all that bad?”: Regarding my cousin who drowned in the bathtub under the supervision of a man who later was convicted of beating a child to death, “Oh, do you really think that is what happened?”

I question now how I have been certain all these years that my cousin was murdered – when I was a child myself at the time. What facts filtered down to me, and how? Having always thought my grandmother was blind to anything unpleasant, I begin now to wonder if she just learned to be comfortable in not knowing. What is the virtue of forming conclusions?

She never dwelt on the ugly. The painful facts I know of her childhood were tucked in the clauses of her sentences. They were never the point of the stories she told me.

She could have easily written that comment on the Tate’s Instagram portrait.

No. She wouldn’t have. She had no illusions that anyone in the bigger world would be swayed by her opinion. But she would have told me. And how painful it is that only now, 7 years after her death, I begin to understand her point of view.

Isn’t it in line with Keats’s negative capability? Doesn’t it share a core value of Buddhism?

No judgement. Consciously not conforming and interpreting experience to fit a narrative. Performing our own lives.

But is it possible to avoid performativity as a writer?

I am asking both in terms of the written works a writer produces and in terms of the identity of the “writer”. In trying to circle back to where all these thoughts began: writing is asking people to look. It’s pointing at the world from your standpoint at that moment assuming you have a point of view worth sharing.

Isn’t everything we write autobiography, no matter our intention? Isn’t every poem the creation of a sieve through which you pour what you can of yourself.

If I knew how to design the shape of that sieve, I would want it to look like Rineke Dijkstra’s photograph.

How does that jive with negative capability?

Or authenticity, for that matter.

 

 

 

 

Posted in: Journal, Poetry

3 thoughts on “March 31st, 2019 Leave a comment

  1. Leonard Cohen, from “Different Sides”:

    “You want to live where the suffering is
    I want to get out of town
    C’mon baby give me a kiss
    Stop writing everything down”

    (P.S.: I know I’m supposed to put the quote marks outside the punctuation, but most days I just can’t bring myself to do it.)

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  2. It’s a good question, whether everything we write is, in some sense, autobiography.

    Or a performance of the self or selves we decide to project…ugly, glamorous, fictive, ‘authentic’…

    Writing is asking people to pay attention; the writer observes (and interprets and invents). Do we not also, in some sense, invent our own lives? I mean–memories are notoriously unreliable witness to experience. And yet, they are all we have.

    When I think of how much I’ve written down over the years–if someone were to read all of it (poor someone!), that person could construct a pretty fair representation of my experience, my biography. And still, perspectives on that life would vary from reader to reader. Each performance unique, thanks to the arrow of time, I guess.

    There exists in my photo albums a ‘messy’ post-birth unstaged photo. When I see it, my heart goes into my throat. I recall the work and the pain and the awe. Those things I treasure. Thanks for making me reflect.

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