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what we tell and what we hide
On Writing, Permission, and the Certainty of Our Stories
I arrived at Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown a little more than a week ago for a residency during which I would finish my next book.
I looked forward to the light, the air, the quiet, and the creative environment of FAWC to quell my over-active, grinding brain which, over the last eighteen months has juggled relentless eldercare, Long Covid, teaching, deadlines, and resulted in an inability to capture elusive and precious continuity of thought necessary to complete a book.
A full draft was nearing completion when I arrived on Cape Cod. I have long known exactly what this book was meant to be, and what it was becoming with each draft: it grew out of the memoir workshops I lead on story ownership and permission, and how artists must transcend the strictures of this ownership in order to craft the thing that needs to be crafted with both texture and clarity. I’ve spent years talking about it, speechifying about it, looking into the faces of tentative writers and other artists as they grapple with it.
I came to understand the simple, uncomplicated fact that humans are profoundly invested in being right: we believe that our experience — our version — is the only version, the real version.
I began writing about permission for On Being, and since then have had to give myself permission to talk openly about permission and the creative process: why we write what we write and why we hide what we hide, why we are inevitably bound to James Baldwin’s belief that Every writer has only one story to tell, and he has to find a way of telling it until the meaning becomes clearer and clearer, and how truth and fact are moving targets — the latter being empirical and the former, subjective. (Think about that the next time you sit down with your large family of six siblings, and you ask them, for example, about the time that Dad got drunk at Christmas in 1976, and you’ll get six different answers, including Dad never drank. Each of those responses is a viable truth belonging to a separate person who remembers Christmas 1976 through the lens of their own experience; the fact — that he was at an office party, ran over the lawn mower in the garage and never made it out of the car — is, however, fact.) As Patricia Hampl writes, Memoir … necessarily creates a work of art, not a legal document. But then, even legal documents are only valiant attempts to consign the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth to paper. Even they remain versions.)
Working my way through On Permission and trying to unearth its voice — it eluded me for a long time — I came to understand the uncomplicated fact that humans are profoundly invested in being right: we believe that our experience — our version — is the only version, the real version. It is the experience, and it threatens to render anyone else’s (spouse’s, mother’s, father’s, sibling’s, cousin’s, friend’s, boss’s, frenemy’s) wrong and therefore, invalid.
That is not the way it happened, a family member once said to me about an event from my youth at which she was not present.
How could she say this? Did she really mean it? She did, because she had crafted a narrative about it, and the truth — my truth — and the facts behind it run contrary to the story that she had fashioned for herself and to which she clung, and that has, over time, been embedded in her memory. Her version of the narrative, is, according to her, the right one, the only one, and she believes this with every fiber of her being. There is a whiff of innate, arrogant narcissism embedded in story ownership, and we — every last one of us — fall prey to it as writers and art-makers. And yes, there is neurobiological research behind all of this. (An extreme version: people who claim Fake News — that January 6th really didn’t happen and was a story crafted by Democrats despite physical violence and death, and photographic proof of the attack; that Lahaina was destroyed not by wildfires caused by a probable electrical spark from downed wires, but by space lasers — are certain that their version of a story is right, rather than evidentially and empirically factual.)
There is a whiff of innate, arrogant narcissism embedded in story ownership, and we — every last one of us — fall prey to it as writers and art-makers.
Where there are issues surrounding story ownership there are also always questions of permission: do I have permission to write about this thing as seen through the lens of my own experience, if it contradicts everyone else’s? Do I have permission to write about this thing if it translates to someone else being wrong or implies that they are delusional? Taken further, if an entire group of people across generations (we know who these people are: the Columbus-Discovered-America people; the Slaves-Were-Happy-and-Grateful people; the Jews-Have-Horns people) craft a cultural narrative as a way of convincing themselves of their own innocence, what happens when someone actually writes the truth? (The systematic genocide of the Indigenous; the unimaginable horrors and intergenerational trauma of slavery that lives on in one’s viscera at the cellular level; the gaslighting of millions in an art-making, beauty-loving modern society as a way to make them blithely amenable to murder in the name of purity.)
The issue of permission and the making of art can be peeled like an onion. And while I thought I understood where the story was going in the writing of On Permission, I neglected to comprehend one vitally important thing that was staring me in the face — my own Occam’s Razor — and this realization changed everything about the book’s foundation and voice: I could not write this book the way it needed to be written until I gave myself permission to tell my own story about permission. My own story was so bound up in horror and humiliation that I resisted talking about it publicly, much less writing about it.
Shame and permission are conjoined twins. When an artist asks for the latter — even of herself — she almost inevitably unleashes the former.
Ten days ago, I carried my bags and my books and my computer up the steps to my apartment at Fine Arts Work Center, set myself up, and began re-drafting my manuscript to include the anchoring story of how I got here, of why permission has screamed in my ear for the last decade. In my first book, in eight lines towards the end, I included a piece of information about a beloved person in my family, long-dead, who made a decision in 1926 that directly changed the course of my father’s life and his world view, and my own. What I did not know was that a swath of my family didn’t know about this person’s devastating decision; another part hid it in plain view as a non-secret secret. I had grown up with the story, though, and tragic as it was, it was as mundane in my young day-to-day as asking for the salt shaker at dinnertime. But when the book came out, I found myself suddenly alone, having been excised from a large portion of my family for telling the century-old story about motherhood and abandonment, and how, epigenetically, abandonment begets abandonment unless it is dealt with, understood, defrocked of its inherent shame, and healed.
We did not give you permission to tell this story, a family member said to me a few weeks after publication at a wedding reception, tapping their finger hard into my breastbone. It was not yours to tell.
While the response to this cautionary tale is usually one of shock — I am very cautious and circumspect when I share the story with my new memoir students — this must be said: shame and permission are conjoined twins. When an artist asks for the latter — even of herself — she almost inevitably unleashes the former. But art-making, as Janna Malamud Smith once wrote, is an antidote to shame. So it becomes part of the work of the writer and of the artist to expose the humanness of our stories to light, to air, as a way to transcend and move beyond what binds us, often generationally, to silence. Writers and artists are truth-tellers; we write, we paint, we sculpt, we sing, we make music in order to make sense of our lives, to create order where there is disorder. To make peace.