Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Book #40: The Risk of Writing Honestly

Diana Athill: A sort of shudder of guilt still goes through me about being so - not indiscreet - but about myself.  I shouldn't be doing it.  But if you're trying to write about something because you're trying to get to the bottom of it, whether it's your own life or something else, there is no point in doing it unless you try as hard as you can to do it honestly, and to say how it really was.

Alice Munro: Well, I got things right, but it didn't always please the people I got it right about.  I can remember really hurting people.

                                    -A Conversation between Diana Athill and Alice Munro, Finding the Words

A couple weeks ago, I went with some friends to the book launch for Finding the Words, an anthology of personal writings by various writers who support PEN Canada.  Although I went to the event not knowing much about this non-profit literary organization, by the end of the evening I'd learned a bit about its work defending freedom of expression in Canada and abroad, and I was sufficiently intrigued to buy the book (from which all profits go to supporting the organization).

Last night, when I couldn't sleep, I began reading a transcribed conversation between Diana Athill and Alice Munro - two great writers interviewing each other.  I don't know why I began reading in the middle of the book, but their conversation instantly grabbed me.  Their frank discussion about the risks of writing honestly - the emotional risks of hurting others, the writer's own paralyzing sense of self-exposure - struck a chord indeed. 

I suppose it must have something to do with the fact that yesterday I finished editing the final chapters of my own book and sent the manuscript off to my agent and publisher for their feedback.  So later that day, I was left lying on the sofa, feeling bored and antsy, and my mind started wandering to the fateful prospect of how my writing would be received.  I'm not talking about the requests for revisions that Sandra and Sam are bound to throw at me, I'm talking about the more terrifying question of how the people depicted in my memoir will respond.  My parents, my surgeon (now deceased, it turns out, according to Google), a smattering of ex-boyfriends some of whom I'm still friends with (and all of whose names have been changed, don't worry), a cast of dead relatives who come alive in my imagination, et cetera.  How will these people and ancestral ghosts respond to their afterlives on the pages of my notebook?

It came as something of a relief to discover via Athill and Munro that I'm not the only one to feel awkward and embarrassed about having undertaken this unabashed exercise in narcissism in writing a book at all.  While I was immersed in writing it, I was simply luxuriating in the freedom to write and I felt it was important to allow myself to write in a way that felt authentic and uncensored, as I journeyed back through my defection from the Ivory Tower, my breakdown, my sense of failure, the toll that my career blues took on my love life and all the rest of the emotional turbulence stirred up during that miserable period.... 

Paradoxically, while writing, I wasn't thinking about the eventuality that others would read my words.  But I'm thinking about it now.

Fortunately, just as I was prepared for a night of insomnia, I discovered another essay, "The First Time," by Stacey May Fowles, who reflects at length on the beehive of neuroses presented by publishing her first book.  Plenty of alcohol and cognitive behavioural therapy, she recommends. 

Photo from: here



Anglers Rest said...

Hi, I have nominated you for the Lovely Blog Award. For details please visit

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

How lovely of you. Thanks for thinking of me!


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About Me

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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.