Sunday, March 08, 2009

Writing: Assumptions, Ethics, Boredom

Last couple of weeks have been all about writing: On a personal level, I have a minor writers' block - not the kind that goes on forever, but the sort where ideas and sentences flicker in and out of consciousness, too vague, too fast, too out of reach to make sense. Having been in this state before, I am just getting on with things until the block dissipates: watching interminable hours of cinema, surfing the web for news through the night, reading whatever I can find including the nutritional information on food packaging. And then people wonder why so many writers are well-informed; what else can you do through these long hours of tedium while waiting for your mind to click into an articulate state?

On a social level, a stranger drama is unfolding. I keep running into people who find the idea of being a writer fascinating! So last week, on a date, the man kept asking me questions about what "inspired" me! Then I met some people for drinks, one of whom was an American woman who insisted on telling me how she admired writers because we were "so creative." And then, just to cap it all, the Guardian carried an entire article about Writers and Writing. Why anybody would care to know whether writing is joy or chore is beyond my comprehension. How many times do we ask cardiac surgeons whether their profession is a "joy or a chore"? Or a fireman? Or less dramatically but none the less logically, the postman?

None of this is new, of course. I have grown used to people assuming that being a writer means that I am any or all of the following:

1. An alcoholic/drug addict
2. Bohemian with unpaid bills and incapacity to manage personal finance
3. Social liberal (read: easily convinced to have indiscriminate sex with strangers)
4. Living the Vida Loca, with late soirees with free flowing intellectual conversation and copious amounts of alcohol (see #1) interspersed with writing in a freezing Parisian garret; how I am supposed pay for this is of course left unexplained.
5. Neurotic, psychotic, manic-depressive, purposefully seeking pain in my personal life (or may be thats just a male excuse for bad behaviour?) in order to find "inspiration." In this particular state, I am supposed to alternate between slashing my wrists and presumably writing with the seeping blood!

I always am met with disbelieving looks when I explain that writing is a job, albeit my dream one. As a child, I loved making up stories, and never could have imagined that I could do it as a career. For me, its like being paid for playing street cricket, or drawing on your mum's kitchen wall. There isn't much pain involved! Although it is hard work, just as playing street-cricket used to be; and the consequences aren't always fabulous. But at the end, that's all! (I think thats why that date last week didn't go well - I think he wanted a neurotic, bohemian, nympho!).

Which is why when a friend asked me about the Julie Myerson story, I was a bit shocked (full disclosure: I have never read her; and given my general lack of interest in contemporary British writing, hadn't heard of her either). Once I got the basic outline of the unfolding pathetic tale, however, I realised what my friend wanted to know wasn't what I thought of Myerson; she was trying to establish the outlines of my personal value system, and thus the limits of our friendship.

In writing a tell-all account of her son's encounter with drugs, Myerson had opened a can of worms for all writers. What my friend really wanted to know was if I would cannibalise our friendship; whether I would "betray" her in writing; in short, did I have a moral compass that could tell the difference between betrayal of a loved one and an addiction to writing.

I was a bit insulted at first. And saddened too. But then I think, she deserved (and so do others in my life) an answer. Writers are cannibals, no doubts. Or at least consumers of psychological carrion. But most of us are not immoral, unethical or automatically addicted to betrayal. Nor are most works of fiction - at least not the good ones - mere jazzed up memoirs and autobiographies. In fact, I find the constant questions on my writing being "autobiographical" quite insulting because they suggest that I have no imagination!

Most writers do not hurt those they love, or betray them in writing. Or perhaps it is better if I speak only for myself: I have in the past inadvertently hurt people close to me by writing on topics that leads the press or general public to question me or my lifestyle. When my first play was produced, my mother was asked invasively personal and stupid questions by the press. My father, like most fathers, hates when I write anything sexually graphic. But for most part, those closest to me have been aware that what I write is not intended to hurt, nor even about them. Even when particularly well constructed sentences - most often from my brother - are cannibalized into my writing, they are in completely different, fictional, contexts.

Most of my family and friends have long read my writing not to feel betrayal, but rather, to quote one of them, "to see how the reality they live with me is metamorphosed into something completely different."

Over the years I have grown better at protecting those I love. After my first novel, I started sealing away journals and diaries so I wouldn't be tempted to go find particular sentences that I felt were well constructed. For my second book, I refused to give the press access to my boyfriend at the time; a decision that led to particularly nasty insinuations by some journalists (pick from the assumptions list above). And with my last boyfriend, I took - at least for me - an extreme stance: I gave him the diaries I had written while we were together and told him to do what he wished with them. I felt that our privacy was the best and possibly only parting gift I could give him. I have yet to regret that decision!

Which is why the Myerson saga bothers me so much: she has betrayed her son by publishing what was a family matter. She has the right to write it of course - that is how writers come to grips with their thoughts, emotions, lives. But to publish it has been a betrayal of the son - and the family - she should have protected. And that is a betrayal she will have to live with - and pay for - for the rest of her days.

But she has also betrayed what she considers her profession/vocation/addiction. She has betrayed writing, which in its greatest form is about truth, not merely a subjective viewpoint. And it is about compassion and understanding of humans, both in our strength and frailty. By placing personal gain - of telling her story as the "right" one, of exerting a narrative control over her contentious relationship with her young son - she has betrayed that essential requirement for truth and compassion. And in doing so, she has also betrayed the rest of the writing community.


  1. I am quite flattered that:

    (1) you consider my sentences to be well-constructed; and

    (2) you consider them well-constructed enough to pilfer them!

    I am also somewhat relieved that my slightly filmy life does not run the risk of being serialised / exposed / written up in a future work! (phew!)

    More seriously - love the piece. It's such an interesting dilemma - where do you draw the line between drawing from your reality and violating the privacy of the people closest to you? In some ways it is easier for people who associate with artists in the visual or auditory space; you can decide whether you want to be painted / photographed, and in the same way the chances of your life being cannibalised for music is a less visible risk than being "written up" in either prose, verse or a play....

  2. Well, they are well constructed at times. :-)
    You are right about different art forms. I think as a writer, its ethical to protect those you love, and you always have choices about what you publish. And also very sane to learn to protect yourself from your writing. At least, I learned that over time. What I think is REALLY wrong is what Myerson has done to her son.

  3. Nice piece on writers and writing. Yea, its true that many a times writers are not taken as normal behaving people.But there are both sides to writing business, as you also have admitted.It can be good or evil (betrayal as you write). With good wishes.