Raison d’être, Part 2: Intent & Style

I am sometimes very blunt, too blunt for some people, insensitive, even. I removed a post last week because I hurt someone that I deeply respect because I was so blunt. I was upset beyond words and my reaction took me back to, one of the worst, most awkward versions of me. I’ve been mulling over that post, which I am editing and will repost, and my apparent lack of sensitivity. My self censure has been bothering me a lot, so here is another attempt to explain this blog and my intent.

Dorothy believed that if you told someone something truthfully, and honestly, you were giving them something, a kind of respect. – A. S. Byatt, The Children’s Book

The above quote, from a great book that I highly recommend, could be about me. I am blunt but not out of a lack of finesse, although I am a terrible liar and would be an awful actor, but because telling the truth and speaking with honesty are the simplest, least complicated way for me to communicate. When I start lying and telling half truths, I have to remember not only the lie, but the intent behind it and the final outcome I was hoping for; I am much too forgetful to pull this off. With truth and honesty, there is no effort, no remembering – it just is. By being honest and actually talking about something with you, or in this case writing about something, especially sensitive subjects, I am showing that I trust you enough to handle it, that I trust myself to handle any adverse reaction you may have. All of that trust implies a mutual respect, beginning with my respect for whoever ends up reading this and the hope, however naive it is, that the respect will be returned and therefore mutual.

My truth, my memory of an event, is likely to be very different from someone else who witnessed or participated in that same event. Memory is subjective. Experience is subjective. The simple explanation, without getting into psychology, neurology, or philosophy1, is that people are different – of course their memories of the same event will be different as well.

There are different ways of interpretting events. I am reminded of things like Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, which I did read at one point because it helped my mother. Many people also find comfort in faith, but after a crisis of faith in early high school, I am an atheist. I believe God (or Gods) are a neurological construct, that we really are God(s), but not in a mystical/spiritual kind of way; really, that those who believe in God are both fooling themselves and self-comforting. But if that works for you, if that helps you live a happy, productive life, so much the better – live and let live. Faith – in God, in people – has not worked out well for me.

However, I do seek out practical advice and read about the experiences of others, usually experiences that are much worse than mine. I have tried and stuck with different things (therapy, exercise, medication, meditation) that have a noticeable effect and strike a chord with me. I am slowly recasting some of the things that have happened, trying to re-tell them (to myself, anyway), in way that I am the victor rather than the victim. I saved this excerpt two years ago, to remind myself:

Before I sought the wisdom of the professionals, though, I did jury-rig my own program for managing those flashbacks, using techniques of “mental mastery,” as it were, that I’d learned in yoga. For instance, I tried to recast the images playing in my head, sometimes imagining they were moving around physically to different parts of my brain. I also inserted into the sequence of flashbacks the image of the man’s miraculous turning and fleeing, and my mystical feeling of omnipotence in that moment.

My therapist later gave these methods a stamp of approval. Being able to re-conceive the meaning of an assault to one of empowerment versus self-blame proves a deciding factor in overcoming trauma. “You didn’t almost get yourself killed,” she said to me. “You saved your life.” Recreating a narrative also helps a survivor overcome a fragmenting of memory that is typical in trauma. “It is difficult to see more than a few fragments of the picture at one time,” writes Herman, “to retain all the pieces and to fit them together.” The sufferer struggles to reconnect disjointed visceral and rational memories of the trauma. Healing, writes Herman, “involves the active exercise of imagination and fantasy.” The psychologist Mary Harvey includes in her seven-point checklist for the resolution of trauma simply to gain “authority” over the memories.

“The Art of Defying Death,” Elizabeth Kadetsky, The New York Times, October 14, 2009

I have been thinking about writing a memoir-like thing for a long time. Most of the things I’m writing about in this blog I’ve written about in my journal at least once, if not many times. I’ve poured my emotions out, both good and bad, and experienced and re-experienced events. I’ve done my best to understand why things happened the way they did, why people did the things they did. I’ve walked in my parents’ shoes and the shoes of the other people in my life, I’ve thought about what they might have experienced. I’ve thought about how things could have or should have happened. Perhaps this hasn’t been the most productive way to spend my life – just think of the other things I could have been occupying myself with! I don’t think writing about everything is going to purge it forever from my memory, but I’m hoping that when I’m done, I’ll finally allow myself to focus on other things with the same intensity.

There is not a lot of emotion in my writing-style, particularly in this blog. Part of the reason is my admiration for minimalism, which began with my introduction to Marguerite Duras via her novel Moderato Cantabile, though many of you may be more familiar with her from the French movie L’Amant (The Lover), which is based on her autobiographical novel of the same name.

My writing style also is also heavily influenced by several of my college classes, most memorable, Richard L. Enos’ classes. We were assigned complex reading material, for example parts of Aristotle’s Rhetoric, and asked to write a single type-written page describing which type of argument is most important/effective and why: ethos (credibility), pathos (emotional), or logos (logical). Another one-pager I remember agonizing over was whether or not rhetoric (in all its forms) is an art or a craft. Is being succinct any different than being blunt?

One final note on my writing style: for almost ten years I was a technical writer. Initially, I wrote manuals for a C/C++ toolkit for the telecommunications industry, then for telecommunications software and equipment, and finally process and audit documentation for another telecommunications service provider. Good technical writing should include intense evaluation of the reader – when, where, and how are they going to use what you’re writing? What information are they going to be looking for? The more you know about your subject and your reader, the better the documentation will be. And the theory, often neglected or deigned as unimportant, is that better documentation leads to happier users, a boost in the company’s reputation and bottom line, and fewer calls to the help-desk. Good technical writing is succinct and informative; as a result of striving to be a good technical writer, the rest of my writing has become more succinct and informative (I hope).

What do you need to know about my past to understand who I am, why I act the way I do? Who can I help by writing this blog? Will writing about it publicly finally take the visceral memories down a notch, so that the next time I remember & re-experience, it will be easier to get over again? What do I need to remember about the past to keep myself and my children safe? What do I need to remember so that I am a good mother to them? What will I tell them if/when they are curious about me?

I have not told them about many of the things I am writing about. While this is freely available for anyone to read, none of them have asked about how things were when I was growing up. There are a few stock family stories – all of them funny, some of them self-deprecating – that I tell them, but nothing close to the secrets, some of them not-so-secret, that I am writing my way through. I hope that in writing about things the way that I am, when/if they do come asking questions, the answer will be here waiting for them and that it will help them to be less naive than I have been. That they will be proud of me, as I often am of my parents, for surviving what they did and becoming the people they are/were.

So yes – I’m blunt. Yes, I’m trying to be objective while telling these stories from my point of view without pouring my heart out because really: who wants to read that?

Footnotes are your friend

  1. I highly recommend listening to Radiolab’s Memory and Forgetting podcast.
    take me back to where I was

2 thoughts on “Raison d’être, Part 2: Intent & Style

  1. Nother good post. Yep, writing that “exposes” someone else can bite you. But honesty and openness have to be a strong component of any healthy person's life.


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