Book Quote Friday: Making Your Mother Blush

     If we're really thinking about it (let's do that. Yawn, stretch.), I guess one might liken fiction writing to the laying out of the contents of your mind, experience and imagination on the tablecloth, and then obscuring it from sight by applying layers of narrative, characterisation or style. 

     Ideally this adding of layers generalises it, allowing it to transcend the writer’s individual experience, making it palatable and accessible and, all being well, moving it from the realm of the confessional into the realm of art. Some writers layer thickly, others less so. The thinnest veils come inevitably with biography or memoir, when the writer themself is the story and there is no extra narrative or characterisation added as a disguise. This is known as letting it all hang out*.

     But what is a poor writer to do? Humans are pretty gross, dark, seedy, lustful (...), and so, therefore, is a lot of human experience. So, how should one go about writing the things that might, ahem, make your mother blush?

Maurice: A Novel      Well, a good number of writers in the past have rejected the idea of self-revelation entirely. They wait for their parents to die before they write the book they’d always planned, wait for themselves to die (that takes planning; use E. M. Forster as a guide) or never write it at all. Others use a pen name to keep the real truth from their neighbours. Maybe some go into children’s books so they can avoid the hotspots entirely. 

     And some just say it, their name attached, the works. This is a conundrum I struggled with, even pre-writing: it always seemed somehow disrespectful to the people who love you to draw attention to the less respectable aspects of yourself in the media or in print. I remember hearing Lily Allen’s ‘Not Fair’ for the first time and aside from loving it, wondering how she could bear her parents knowing such intimate details of her sex life. I remember saying this to my husband, to which he replied ‘Well, at least they really know her’, which I guess is about the sum of it. I’ve come to the conclusion now that if you really want to connect (only connect; how ironic), you’ve just got to be honest and throw caution to the wind.

     Emma Forrest, whose book I discussed in an earlier post, is incredibly, shockingly, searingly honest about her life, using first person narrative, the tag of ‘a memoir’ and talking quite confidently about things that make me blanch to think of her parents, as today’s quote from ‘Your Voice in my Head’ will hopefully adequately illustrate: 

*By the way, if you are of a particularly sensitive nature, maybe skip down a paragraph or two*


     ‘I have sex with a guy who saves my cat from being stuck up a tree. A Rottweiler chases Perry almost to the top. It’s a sweet Rottweiler, but Perry knows the harm of which it’s capable. ‘Can I try to get him?’ asks the man, a passing friend of my landlord. He shimmies up with ease and gently talks Perry down.

     I go into the house to find a thank-you present. I can’t find anything good so I give him my vagina. He is very, very tender to my cat. He is rough with me. Doesn’t it at least go: he saves my cat from a tree… then we talk about Barack Obama… then we have sex? No, not so genteel a preamble as that. It means less than nothing and within twelve hours it means everything. It is reckless and this means my meds are off. That is where I am again. I was trying to break a spell. It did not work. I said it wrong. It took me back in time instead.’

Your Voice in My Head: A Memoir    At various points in the book she also talks about a strange man forcing himself on her, a lover leaving her bleeding and another nearly asphyxiating her, and a whole lot of other intimate things besides. Stuff that once known is kind of unknownable, and is certainly not your standard fare at the dinner table of a Sunday night (I hope).

     So is this bravery, or is it literary exhibitionism? Personally, I think it's bravery. Having such a strong commitment to the telling of a story, especially at the expense of yourself, is something I find easy to respect whilst the higher purpose remains resonance and a desire to convey the 360° view. To be honest, after reading her book I feel she is a living, breathing person (which she most certainly is), most likely because she has told me her secrets. Perhaps everyone who's read the book feels the same way, and she now has a world full of people who wish her well. I guess that, right there, is the power of letting people see how black it got for you before it got light.
     Of course, it would be far too simplistic and na├»ve to suggest that disclosure like this won’t change the way that some people look at you. If your family or community might be offended by any sexual or questionable content then it is understandable that you might not want to take that risk. Once someone knows something about you you can’t make them forget it, and even if whatever-it-is happens to a character or in a setting far removed from yourself, there maybe some who wonder how you came up with those things, or why.

     It’s a judgement call, I guess. Emma Forrest picked one way, you might pick another. For now, I think I might see how far I can push the envelope without freaking myself out, whilst keeping in mind the eternal and horrific truth that your parents most likely already know far more about your (past) lives than you’d like to believe (acknowledge it, then block it out). 

    And also, who are you kidding? Where do you think you got your imagination from anyway? The ‘indiscretions’ you have yet to reveal might pail in significance to what they got up to in their youth. Only difference is, they never felt the urge to write about it. 

     Or is that the perversion we should be worrying about right there?

*henceforth, by me


  1. Hey again, I just found this really rather similiarly-themed post by Joanna Penn on the excellent Tribal Writer:


    I love this quote:

    'Be brave.

    You are one in a long line of writers who felt these fears. Don’t be afraid. It’s part of the journey. We are all complex creatures with facets that run beneath our public personas. As writers, we are charged with honesty, with writing what others would keep silent. So people will judge us and criticize. This is inevitable. But in everyday life, we’re judged by what we look like, how we sound, how we dress, what school we went to, how we raise our children. We have learned to live with that criticism and judgement, so we must be brave and live with whatever comes in the wake of publication.

    Understand the book is not you.'

    Great advice.

  2. Sharing sexual secrets might be brave in the "What will my mother/boss/whomever think?" sense, but it's smart too. Everyone is drawn to sex, and we automatically admire people who talk/write openly about sex.

    Any kind of personal revelation is brave really. Not just for memoirists, but for us bloggers too. When we blog, we're constantly weighing how many layers people are allowed to see. Like showing just enough vulnerablilty to seem real, but not so much that one appears weak or dependent.

    Which I guess is a bit like everyday conversation, only conversations don't leave a written record.

    Great post. Very thought provoking.

  3. Wow, that is some very brave writing. Never ever would I be able to write a memoir like that! Or any memoir. I think I fall into the avoid it by writing children's books category!

  4. Stacy - you're right, this theme has so many applications to so many types of writing, and sex is such a flashpoint for so many that I agree that it's a very smart thing to write about. I think maybe it's amongst the best ways to get into the nitty-gritty of a character as sex/attitudes towards it are often so complex and revealing.

    I have definitely thought about it in regards to this blog as well - my first drafts of articles often have a slightly academic air, I think, as I usually have a specific idea that I want to get across and I often have to go back and deliberately put the 'personal' in, as it's not something I do naturally. I guess that makes me a 'hider', although I'm quite happy to reveal in the guise of someone else. It's something I'm getting more comfortable with though (and something I have to get comfortable with) as I do think it's the only way to really connect.

    Thanks for your comment, by the way; there really is so much to say on this topic!

  5. SF - it's quite out there, isn't it? Finding a suitable example was easy; the difficult part was choosing which one to use out of all the examples that Emma Forrest gives :)

    Speaking of children's books, did you hear Martin Amis' horrible comments last week? Not very nice, or kind.

    Thanks for commenting - brilliant to have feedback from two opposing opinions.

  6. Just to let you know, having posted this link to Twitter as per usual and flagging it for @GirlInterruptor (Emma Forrest) and @Bloomsbury, I received a message back from Emma saying:

    '@lyndsay_wheble I don't mind at all [that you discussed my book]. Easier to read than it was to write down, I promise!'

    See, I told you she was real :)

    Love it (and her).


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