I don’t write about myself.
It’s nothing personal, really. I just don’t find myself all that interesting. Yes, I’ve lived a life and had experiences. Yet I’ve never been seized with the desire to try to shape those experiences into something for the masses.
Over the years, it’s almost become a phobia. At a seminar this past weekend, the instructor gave our group the simple task of writing a very short personal essay on whatever we wanted. All around me, classmates were spinning off wonderful ideas and thoughts and events. Every single one of them seemed brilliant. I, on the other hand, couldn’t think of a bloody thing. I ended up writing about Thomas Jefferson.
This inability wouldn’t bother me if we lived in different times, but this is the Age of the Memoir. Creative nonfiction, which almost always means self-referential narrative, is all the rage. Everyone from celebrities to bloggers to people who happened to survive for a news cycle or two are ready to spill their dysfunctions and stories out into print, and publishers race to sign them.
This raises a question for people like me: in an era where so many writers seem to expose every shred of themselves to their readers, what do the more reticent among us do? Do we do our audience a disservice by being less willing than others to bring our stories back to our selves?
I was heartened yesterday morning when I followed a link to an Atlantic Magazine article about George Orwell’s 1946 essay, Why I Write. By coincidence, he and I share a birthday; apparently, we share similar views on writing about the self:
“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a POLITICAL purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.”
Because there is always something to be learned in what we resist, I will try to get beyond my fear of the “I” voice. Who knows? Maybe to write prose like a windowpane, the writer has to learn to peek out from behind the curtain from time to time.
Heather Michon is a blogger, essayist and WriterHouse volunteer. She welcomes visitors to her website, http://www.heathermichon.com