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"The Honesty Problem" by Lee Kofman

La république des lettres —
"The Honesty Problem" by Lee Kofman

My husband, a doctor, tells me that his patients often say to him, ‘Can I be honest with you?’ He jokes that in these instances he wonders what the point of their visit was if they hadn’t intended to be honest. Isn’t it self-evident that patients need to be prepared to disclose the details of their conditions? The same applies to memoirists: isn’t it self-evident that to create something worthwhile they have to be committed to honest disclosure? Yet often I have ignored, or at the very least struggled with, this supposedly obvious notion.

When it comes to memoirs, honesty is often simply equated with the confessional tone. Memoirists are frequently expected to produce sensational writing—writing that titillates because of its shock value—and then criticised for it. Many memoirists confess (and sometimes invent, as in James Frey’s case) exotic misadventures such as working in S&M parlours or surviving jails in Third World countries. I often enjoy reading those kinds of memoirs and living vicariously through their protagonists. As a writer, I have confessed my own share of at least semi-exotic tales such as the expedition to a fetish club on the night before my wedding, which opens my memoir The Dangerous Bride. But I wonder, does my willingness to divulge certain anecdotes that display my own ‘wildness’ truly render me an honest writer? Is this enough?

I love that famous remark by the legendary editor Gordon Lish that writers should ‘never be sincere—sincerity is the death of writing’. How does this suggestion fit with the requirement for honesty? In my view, there is no contradiction here. Lish’s sincerity refers to the tedium of the scrupulous recounting of facts (this happened, then that happened), which is what lesser memoirs give us. He wisely reminds us that conscientious writing should not be confused with honest writing. A sincere report of action, even the most extraordinary kind, doesn’t automatically equal honest writing if it contains little reflection on the inner workings of the memoirist. It is these memoirs, written with little analysis, that critics evoke when they dismiss the entire genre. Yet there are plenty of memoirs that are just as much works of art as the best fiction—usually because they get the emotional honesty right. As American memoirist Patricia Hampl argues, ‘memoir isn’t fundamentally a chronicle of experience; rather, memoir is the story of consciousness contending with experience’. Hampl talks here about memoirists’ duty to their readers to be emotionally honest—to reflect on, then find the right language to describe, what it’s like to be human.

I do not find it easy to write about the kind of experiences that I wouldn’t want my mother to know about. I do, for instance, feel constrained when describing my poor behaviour in romantic relationships. But my greatest difficulty with honesty lies in Hampl’s contending mode of writing. In my own writing I still struggle to shed my inhibitions around emotional honesty. In theory I am a great believer that a writer’s best work dwells in the caves of shame. I love what Karl Ove Knausgaard has to say about the topic in an interview for the Paris Review:

as anyone with the least knowledge of literature and writing … will know, concealing what is shameful to you will never lead to anything of value. This is something I discovered later, when I was writing my first novel, when the parts that I was ashamed like a dog to have written were the same parts that my editor always pointed out, saying, This, this is really good! In a way, it was my shame-o-meter, the belief that the feeling of shame or guilt signified relevance

This idea of shame as a reliable barometer for a writer is powerful. The shame-driven ‘relevance’ Knausgaard talks about is what constitutes the themes of great literature—internal conflicts, so-called ‘immoral’ desires, childhood wounds. Such material displays the kind of human experiences that are concealed by social convention yet are intrinsic to our species. When I teach writing, one of my key pieces of advice to my students is that they should write about what makes them blush.

But I am quite good at not practising what I preach. I find it difficult to write honestly about the stuff I am most ashamed of. In my work I sometimes try to portray myself as a nicer, more moral and politically correct character than I really am. I conveniently forget that nice characters are usually the most boring and least realistic ones, and that even the loveliest people harbour problematic desires, thoughts and instincts.

I sometimes lack the courage to own such feelings and thoughts. During my first years in Australia I still had a lot of unfinished business with the country I had emigrated from—Israel. I felt so guilty about leaving that I couldn’t write honestly about my reasons for that migration. For a long time I wouldn’t admit that I chose to live in Australia because economically it cares about its residents in ways Israel cannot, that I love how this country lacks Israeli tribalism and, finally, that I like the local men better … I was afraid writing about my motivations would expose me as selfish and ungrateful to a country that offered refuge to my family after we escaped the Soviet Union. And I probably am those things, but this is my truth.

Similarly, in my memoir I found admitting my wish to be non-monogamous harder than describing seduction scenes. This may sound ridiculous, but even though my book was explicitly about non-monogamy, it took me several years of working on it to be able to write the following, seemingly obvious, sentence: ‘The dream of love I’d harboured since adolescence entailed commitment but also sexual freedom.’ The fact that non-monogamy is one of the last Western sexual taboos combined, with my own religious upbringing, contributed to my deep shame about my romantic inclinations. I was dishonest in the earlier memoir drafts, writing as if I accidentally fell into non-monogamous relationships. Yet once I admitted the truth, that ever since my youth I have wanted to be non-monogamous, writing The Dangerous Bride became easier. Perhaps holding such truths back places writers at the risk of losing their most important asset—their authentic writing voice.

As Raymond Carver suggests, writers’ peculiarities are what make their works worthwhile. In his famous essay ‘On Writing’ he argues that good writers possess a ‘unique and exact way of looking at things … Through this the author makes the world over according to his own specifications.’ French novelist André Gide reflects similarly:

I maintain that what an artist has to believe is this: that there is a special world, to which he alone has the key … everything in him must be … transmitted through a powerfully colouring idiosyncrasy. He must have a particular philosophy, aesthetic, morality

Of course, depicting one’s honest view of the world places the writer at risk of being disliked by those who don’t share it. This is what often terrifies me. But creating worthwhile literature has little to do with likeability. To be likeable is a useful asset in daily life, but not in writing. As the remarkably frank American memoirist Cheryl Strayed says: ‘Sometimes I wince when showing the icky stuff, the stuff for which I know people will judge me. But writing requires such things. It isn’t about covering your ass. It’s about showing it.’ I particularly admire those writers who sound authentic, regardless of whether I agree with their opinions. Geoff Dyer, one of my favourite writers, is capable of sentences such as: ‘I like the way [D.H.] Lawrence had no children because I hate children and I hate parents of children.’ The latter point puts me, a mother, in Dyer’s category of hated people but I couldn’t care less and gladly keep reading his books, always interested in what he has to say about the world.

The compelling quality of frankness holds true not only for memoirists but also for other creative nonfiction writers. Helen Garner’s admission to personal motives behind her marvellous true-crime book Joe Cinque’s Consolation makes the work even more gripping. From the beginning Garner frames the book in personal terms, arguably unflattering to herself:

I understand now that I went to Canberra [the site of the murder and the trial described in the book] because the breakup of my marriage left me humiliated and angry. I wanted to look at women who were accused of murder. I wanted to gaze at them and hear their voices, to see the shape of their bodies and how they moved and gestured, to watch the expressions on their faces. I needed to find out if anything made them different from me: whether I could trust myself to keep the lid on the vengeful, punitive force that was in me

By reflecting so honestly on her own motives, Garner earns her readers’ trust that she will explore and reflect on other people’s lethal potential and their responsibilities with a similar honesty and insight. Moreover, Garner’s personal stake in the book makes her investigation feel even more urgent—and therefore more exciting to read.

Beyond my fear of being disliked, I am also afraid of my readers’ censure or pity when I reveal my vulnerabilities—rejections, failures, inadequacies—even though, when I write openly about my emotional pain, this usually earns me sympathy from readers and gives my work greater depth. Unfortunately, alongside my insecurities I also possess a considerable amount of bravado. I don’t want to be liked for my vulnerabilities. I want people to think highly of me, to like me for my strengths rather than my weaknesses. This attitude has always proved a great obstacle to my writing, since I draw upon so much from my personal life. Particularly in my early years as a writer, I found my way around the issue by writing chiefly about the vulnerabilities that I eventually overcame. I wrote from a position of victory. This, though, is just another form of dishonesty—the dishonesty of the perpetual happy ending.

Often when I describe my bad behaviour, I similarly choose to write about those instances where a happy ending exists. If I was mean to my parents, at the end there was reconciliation. If I behaved arrogantly, humility eventually triumphed. Contemporary culture revels in this discourse of redemption, but it is not a narrative exclusive to our age. The ancestor of the memoir genre, St Augustine’s Confessions, presented the template for how to disclose safely one’s worst experiences, one that endures to this day. As long as writers repent, their descriptions of past sins are forgiven, and even welcomed—the more sordid the better. In this way, writers can titillate their readers without losing face and readers can enjoy the titillation without the kind of unease that can result from enjoying unpunished transgressions (to take an example from fiction, think of the discomforting emotions Lolita’s readers often experience when they realise they have become fond of Humbert Humbert). St Augustine’s tradition of moral storytelling, where reformed sinners recount their misdeeds with gusto, has generated an abundance of mediocre memoirs.

Yet we know that in real life not every sin is redeemed, not every failure turns into eventual success. As American essayist John D’Agata suggests, the best memoirs acknowledge the ‘anxiety and wonder and doubt’ residing at the core of our existence rather than offering neat resolutions. I had D’Agata’s voice in my head when, several years ago, I wrote an essay about living with the numerous scars on my body that I usually keep a secret, concealed under my clothing. Although these scars are integral to who I am, for years I failed to mention them in my work. When I finally managed to write an essay about them, my biggest struggle was with the temptation to give myself a happy ending of the ‘nowadays-I-have-come-to-accept-my-scars’ kind. I had to force myself to admit that I still feel deeply ashamed of my scars and inadequate because of them, but also guilty about hiding them because this makes me a ‘fake’.

Paradoxically, despite my surface bravado, I also find it difficult to admit my strengths and successes. Perhaps this attitude has something to do with being a woman—we are still often penalised for success and rewarded for self-effacing behaviour. Or perhaps it is just in my nature to downplay my achievements. In any case, false modesty is another problematic trait in a writer. Hungarian-British writer Arthur Koestler articulates well the importance of being honest about one’s positive aspects in his autobiography Arrow in the Blue:

The virtues of understatement and self-restraint make social intercourse civilised and agreeable, but they have a paralysing effect on autobiography. The memoir-writer ought neither to spare himself nor hide his light under a bushel; he must obviously overcome his reluctance to relate painful and humiliating experiences, but he must also have the less obvious courage to include those experiences which show him in a favourable light.

One of my many struggles in writing my memoir was in describing honestly the development of my sexuality in adolescence. I felt uncomfortable giving myself credit for getting through those years with a healthy dose of self-respect, and for avoiding the bad sex most of my girlfriends had in those years (too early, unwanted, loveless). I worried that writing about this might make me appear arrogant and self-congratulatory. To overcome my reluctance I reminded myself that narratives of female sexuality so often cast women as victims and some alternative stories would probably do us all good.

When I write about my life, I also often feel the urge to simplify it. I fear my biography is too messy to make sense for readers. Once again I want to appear ‘normal’, ‘acceptable’ and so I am tempted to sum myself up with broad brushstrokes. The temptation is to describe myself as an Israeli migrant and omit my Russian origins, or perhaps describe myself as a writer without noting other careers I have had as a journalist, a social worker, a party organiser, an academic. But it is in such details that the authenticity and specificity of writing resides.

Sometimes I am just too lazy to delve into the complexity of human emotions in order to unpick my inner world. I have to be careful not to resort to generic, meaningless descriptions, such as ‘I got angry’ or ‘I felt sad’. I try reminding myself that people experience sadness differently, and even the same person feels many types of sadness. The blues I experience when I read Madame Bovary are mixed with the pleasure at Flaubert’s prose, and obviously differ from how I felt when my first marriage collapsed. The writer’s job is not to resort to shortcuts, but to describe emotional shades and paradoxes. Maureen Corrigan, an American literary critic, expressed this best in her memoir Leave me alone I am reading where she described her expectations of emotional honesty from writers:

What we readers do each time we open a book is to set off on a search for authenticity. We want to get closer to the heart of things … a few good sentences … [that] can crystallize vague feelings, fleeting physical sensations, or, sometimes, profound epiphanies … In our daily lives, where we’re bombarded by the fake and the trivial, reading serves as a way to stop, shut out the noise of the world, and try to grab hold of something real, no matter how small.

While it is impossible to copy precisely the workings of consciousness, I do believe writers can, and should, strive towards a description that at least feels to them (and, consequently, to their readers) authentic.

The more I write, the more I realise that writing honestly is an art, a skill one must never take for granted. Of course such writing comes more naturally to some than it does to me. Nine years ago I took on the issue of honesty as a project. Since then I have developed a self-talk where I keep reminding myself to be more courageous, that these are differences and quirks that make my work interesting. It doesn’t always help, but I keep trying and, for inspiration, read such gutsy writers as Erica Jong and Geoff Dyer.

Hearing how other writers deal with writing honestly also helps. I find American writer Robin Hemley’s take on it particularly useful. In a masterclass of his I attended some years ago Hemley said that when writers put themselves on the line, above all they are being generous with their readers. According to Hemley, what we often imagine to be our private freakish shortcomings are usually shared by many. In the same vein, Doris Lessing writes in the preface to her provocative, and autobiographical, novel The Golden Notebook, ‘Writing about oneself, one is writing about others, since your problems, pains, pleasures, emotions—and your extraordinary and remarkable ideas—can’t be yours alone.’ By admitting shameful secrets, writers are in a good position to bring relief to others, to make some of their readers feel more ‘normalised’, less alone. When I recall Geoff Dyer and his hatred of parents and children, I realise that one of the things I dislike about being a parent is contact with other parents. I have a horror of mothers’ groups, for example. Reading Dyer helped me to overcome my reluctance to write this last sentence. On a less therapeutic and more artistic level, by being honest we can add a ray of light to illuminate the real, rather than idealised, continuum of what it means to be human.

For my honesty project, I find journal writing useful. My journal is my safe place to exercise honesty and exorcise my habit of smoothing things over. There I practise being vulnerable, drumming into myself that writing must hurt me first if I want the reader to feel something too. I also find I can write difficult material when I focus on humour and vivid (e.g. sensual, quirky or entertaining for other reasons) details in such pieces. This strategy works on several levels. First, it is easier to lose my inhibitions when I am distracted by working on what delights me. Second, in this way I am more likely to entertain not just myself but also my readers and this task, to entertain, can overcome my shame. Even more significantly, writing with a focus on the comical and the vivid creates a distance between my painful experiences and the emotions these memories evoke. This distance fosters more objective processing of the tricky material and can result in more reflective writing. This is where art begins, since the focus now shifts from concern for my own wellbeing to that of my readers. It is where I can become generous, as Hemley suggests.

To promote such self-reflection, I now continuously study myself. This is an attempt to cultivate what I call hyper self-awareness, which I see as a must for writers who wish to say something worthwhile about the world. How can we reflect in a meaningful way on current cultural anxieties, for example, if we cannot analyse our own anxieties, motivations, desires, weaknesses and contradictions? In short, I have come to believe writing has a lot in common with therapy.

In another parallel with therapy, becoming an honest writer can take a long time and requires a huge effort. I still find it difficult to be honest, even though I am now more aware that honesty mustunderlie my work. This essay is a good example of how my old problems keep resurfacing. Here, too, I resorted to discussing mostly those difficulties that I have managed to overcome, inhibitions I eventually shed. But there are all those other topics that I am still to bring myself to write honestly about—my views on the politics of Israel and on cultural differences, my marriage, my prejudices. My honesty project is ongoing.

Doris Lessing writes in the preface to her provocative, and autobiographical, novel The Golden Notebook, ‘Writing about oneself, one is writing about others, since your problems, pains, pleasures, emotions—and your extraordinary and remarkable ideas—can’t be yours alone.’

The Honesty Problem

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