I have only lately determined to remember some of my early adventures. Till now I have always avoided them, even with a certain uneasiness. Now, when I am not only recalling them, but have actually decided to write an account of them, I want to try the experiment whether one can, even with oneself, be perfectly open and not take fright at the whole truth. — Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground
“I would not be concerned with the secrets, the lies, the mysteries, the facts. I would be concerned with what makes them necessary. What fear.” — Anais Nin, The Diary of Anais Nin: Vol. I
At some point, toward the beginning of the summer, I became obsessed with the question of truth in personal writing. It wasn’t a question of craft — what to tell, how to tell it — so much as a moral crisis. If I have a value system, reckless honesty ranks high within it. But it’s easier to lie about oneself than about anything else, primarily because it’s easier to lie to oneself than to anyone else; we tend to be our own most gullible readers. And I got the sense that, more often than not, the story I remembered was only the story I most wanted to believe.
I raked through my pieces, looking for sins of which to accuse myself. I found distorted chronology, missing details, imprecisions, false precision, inadvertent cruelties, intentional cruelties, invasions of privacy, a frankly disgusting amount of self-justification, even in pieces that had seemed harmless, and even in pieces where all concerned agreed that I’d told the truth. I had never lied. But the whole truth — the full, real, photographic thing — always seemed to elude me. This process was more than slightly insane; the littlest thing could set me off. I remember those margaritas being $3. I remember that being their only real attraction. But what were the odds that I could remember the exact price of a drink I’d had, several years ago, without taking notes, and when I’d had enough of them to get an impulsive tattoo after the fact? Couldn’t the margaritas have been $5? Or $4, or $7? The spectre of involuntary margarita-related falsehood kept me up at night.
My existential crisis was well-timed. The subject of women’s autobiography — specifically, how much they could tell, and whether they should tell it — was being widely discussed, and fought over. Emily Books was promoting several great examples of it (some of which I reviewed). Marie Calloway and Cat Marnell were attracting a fervent cult fan base, and an equally fervent cult of detractors. Girls and Sheila Heti were so ubiquitous that people joked about having to include their names in a pitch in order to sell it. After a few months of relentlessly hating myself and/or my writing, I was able to produce quite a few pieces on that fight, more often than not arguing both sides.
The terms of the debate — which you’ve likely heard already, but which it’s worth rehashing — are as follows. For the defense: Women have never been encouraged to be honest. Traditional femininity both requires a permanent emotional pseudo-virginity — an appealing blankness, a lack of “baggage,” upon which men can impress their own fantasies and needs — and encourages women to fear or pathologize their own feelings, which are always suspect, always potentially “sentimental” or “melodramatic” or “hysterical.” In the old sexist dichotomy, men were proudly impersonal, gifted with transcendence: They slipped the surly bonds of earth and touched the realms of pure, objective intellect. And if they happened to write about their bad relationships or their breakdowns or their various organ-meat-based masturbational tactics, as they traversed these lofty regions, well, that was Art, my good man. High culture, don’t you know. Brave and ground-breaking and explosive and rebellious and all those other nice, laudatory, masculine-sounding adjectives. Meanwhile, women covering the same ground were supposedly stuck in rehashing petty, pointless personal bullshit. Women didn’t write, or even self-express; they just “overshared.” Therefore, women who actually do share a risky or unflattering amount of personal information are pushing back against the system, breaking new ground, and presenting us with a full, complex portrait of female existence that isn’t filtered primarily through male fantasies or fears.
The prosecution’s case can be summed up in one word: “Narcissism.” Specifically, as John Cook at Gawker writes in regard to Girls, “the exhaustion of ceaselessly dramatizing your own life while posing as someone who understands the fundamental emptiness and narcissism of that very self-dramatization.” The act of writing about oneself is self-inflating, a way of recreating oneself as a fascinating character, even if that character is ugly. And it can also be a dodge which allows one to remain stuck in adolescent acts of self-definition without engaging with the larger social context in any meaningful way. There are wars, there is poverty, there is starvation, there are diseases and injustices and super-PACs; writing about your insensitive college boyfriend does very little to solve the problem. And it’s none too kind to the boyfriend, either.
Or, as Houghton Mifflin wrote to Anais Nin in 1942, rejecting her diaries:
There is no doubt it is a remarkable performance that should someday be published and may well achieve permanence as the ultimate in neurotic self-absorption, a kind of decadent St. Theresa. Certainly the writing is extraordinary, the cadences, the ability to communicate an intensity of emotion. But I don’t think this is the time to bring it out. Today such morbid preoccupation with one’s inner life will seem trivial.
“Today,” apparently, has lasted for seventy years. And it is frankly flabbergasting that any of these conversations — the one about women and autobiography; the one about autobiography and female narcissism; for that matter, the conversations about the act of documenting one’s daily life and creating a more or less truthful public persona, which, in the era of Tumblr and Facebook, are relevant to men and women alike — have gone on this long without a serious consideration of Anais Nin.
Phil Hoffman and I had two things in common. We were both fathers of young children, and we were both recovering drug addicts. Of course I’d known Phil’s work for a long time — since his remarkably perfect film debut as a privileged, cowardly prep-school kid in Scent of a Woman — but I’d never met him until the first table read for Charlie Wilson’s War, in which he’d been cast as Gust Avrakotos, a working-class CIA agent who’d fallen out of favor with his Ivy League colleagues. A 180-degree turn.
On breaks during rehearsals, we would sometimes slip outside our soundstage on the Paramount lot and get to swapping stories. It’s not unusual to have these mini-AA meetings — people like us are the only ones to whom tales of insanity don’t sound insane. “Yeah, I used to do that.” I told him I felt lucky because I’m squeamish and can’t handle needles. He told me to stay squeamish. And he said this: “If one of us dies of an overdose, probably 10 people who were about to won’t.” He meant that our deaths would make news and maybe scare someone clean.
So it’s in that spirit that I’d like to say this: Phil Hoffman, this kind, decent, magnificent, thunderous actor, who was never outwardly “right” for any role but who completely dominated the real estate upon which every one of his characters walked, did not die from an overdose of heroin — he died from heroin. We should stop implying that if he’d just taken the proper amount then everything would have been fine.
He didn’t die because he was partying too hard or because he was depressed — he died because he was an addict on a day of the week with a y in it. He’ll have his well-earned legacy — his Willy Loman that belongs on the same shelf with Lee J. Cobb’s and Dustin Hoffman’s, his Jamie Tyrone, his Truman Capote and his Academy Award. Let’s add to that 10 people who were about to die who won’t now.
The erotic functions for me in several ways, and the first is in providing the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person. The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference.
Another important way in which the erotic connection functions is the open and fearless underlining of my capacity for joy, in the way my body stretches to music and opens into response, harkening to its deepest rhythms so every level upon which I sense also opens to the erotically satisfying experience whether it is dancing, building a bookcase, writing a poem, or examining an idea.
That self-connection shared is a measure of the joy which I know myself to be capable of feeling, a reminder of my capacity for feeling. And that deep and irreplaceable knowledge of my capacity for joy comes to demand from all of my life that it be lived within the knowledge that such satisfaction is possible, and does not have to be called marriage, nor god, nor an afterlife.
This is one reason why the erotic is so feared, and so often relegated to the bedroom alone, when it is recognized at all. For once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of. Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives. And this is a grave responsibility, projected from within each of us, not to settle for the convenient, the shoddy, the conventionally expected, nor the merely safe.
During World War II, we bought sealed plastic packets of white, uncolored margarine, with a tiny, intense pellet of yellow coloring perched like a topaz just inside the clear skin of the bag. We would leave the margarine out for a while to soften, and then we would pinch the little pellet to break it inside the bag, releasing the rich yellowness into the soft pale mass of margarine. Then taking it carefully between our fingers, we would knead it gently back and forth, over and over, until the color had spread throughout the whole pound bag of margarine, thoroughly coloring it.
I find the erotic such a kernel within myself. When released from its intense and constrained pellet, it flows through and colors my life with a kind of energy that heightens and sensitizes and strengthens all my experience.
We have been raised to fear the yes within ourselves, our deepest cravings. But, once recognized, those which do not enhance our future lose their power and can be altered. The fear of our deepest cravings keeps them suspect and indiscriminately powerful, for to suppress any truth is to give it strength beyond endurance. The fear that we cannot grow beyond whatever distortions we may find within ourselves keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, externally defined, and leads us to accept many facets of our own oppression as women.
When we live outside ourselves, and by that I mean on external directives only rather than from our internal knowledge and needs, when we live away from those erotic guides from within ourselves, then our lives are limited by external and alien forms, and we conform to the needs of a structure that is not based on human need, let alone an individual’s. But when we begin to live from within outward, in touch with the power of the erotic within ourselves, and allowing that power to inform and illuminate our actions upon the world around us, then we begin to be responsible to ourselves in the deepest sense. For as we begin to recognize our deepest feelings, we begin to give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering, and self-negation, and with the numbness which so often seems like the only alternative in our society. Our acts against oppression become integral with self, motivated and empowered from within.
In touch with the erotic, I become less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial.
And yes, there is a hierarchy. There is a difference between painting a black fence and writing a poem, but only one of quantity. And there is, for me, no difference between writing a good poem and moving into sunlight against the body of a woman I love.
This brings me to the last consideration of the erotic. To share the power of each other’s feelings is different from using another’s feelings as we would use a Kleenex. When we look the other way from our experience, erotic or otherwise, we use rather than share the feelings of those others who participate in the experience with us. And use without consent of the used is abuse.