Friday, November 04, 2005

The Great Failure

I've just read Natalie Goldberg's latest memoir, The Great Failure. My Unexpected Path to Truth, and I'm wrestling with what I think about it. My gut reaction is to say, "Nat - someday someone's gonna write a book about YOU, somebody you love. They're gonna sit down and put that pen to paper in some little cafe, just like you've instructed, and not lift that pen up until it all comes out, all those first thoughts - how you've injured them in some way, they'll write it as truth. What's THAT gonna feel like, Nat? And you can't respond, 'cause the book is in print, it's out there in the world."

I'm not sure if the writer should publicly "lay bare" the people they've known intimately - whether that's a sexual intimacy or the intimacy that comes from deep friendship or sharing common space, common ground. I'm not sure everything's fair game when it comes to first- person writing, nor am I sure I buy into the viewpoint that publishing what you are confronting through your writing is necessarily a bravery. I guess what I'm struggling with is the following: Because you are engaged in the process of explaining yourself to yourself, which in a sense is the first act of memoir, does that mean there are no boundaries? The ego, after all (and I use ego without negative connotions, the "I" perspective, not as egotistical), sees reality pretty much through his or her own "eye/I." Where does that leave the subject - the "he or she" who did this to me? And when you have an audience as big as Natalie Goldberg's - wow. That's public crucifixion - perhaps even crucifiction - since it is personal perspective.

The book is very well written (sometimes I can hear Natalie's voice putting herself through her writing exercises - and I mean that literally, I've listened to her audiotapes). But sheesh, I just wonder about the role of love in it all, and compassion, and trust, whether it is fair and write/right to do what's she's done.

In a way, she is at the cutting edge of "boomer-dom." She's written a memoir about what the huge demographic is now experiencing, the death of their parents- whether figurative or literal father/mother figures. It is how she handles this figurative father that I question in particular, although I have questions about her actual father, too. In her first book, she sets her Buddhist teacher on a pedestal. In this book, she takes him off.

As the writer, Natalie edits. There are parts where I want to say to her, okay Nat, let's explore HERE. Dig deeper into your own motivation and shortcomings, you've hinted at them. Like when she acknowledges with regret that her former husband, at the young age of thirty, faced the death of his parents alone because she was at the buddhist centre, doing zazen - sitting meditation - literally hours at a time. Days on end. That, to me, was internal bravery on Nat's part, to see that about herself. I wanted more there...

This isn't all theoretical to me - much of my recent writing is from the first-person perspective. So the struggle is real.
-Marianne

2 comments:

Larry Keiler said...

Quick comments off the top of my head, since I haven’t read the book and probably won’t:

Hearing Natalie’s voice, boy do I know what you mean, since I’ve listened to the tapes too (yours, in fact). Eventually I thought I was driving around in an episode of Seinfeld. (Maybe in George Costanza’s car, formerly owned by Jon Voight…)

Perhaps the modern act of memoir is by definition a transgression of boundaries. We boomers, we had a lot of difficulty growing up…still do. Who the hell knows from boundaries? The explosion of memoir and self-help and Dr. Philishness…seems to me we’re doing a lot of explaining ourselves to ourselves, justifying ourselves to ourselves and anyone who will listen/read and haven’t yet figured out the difference between public disclosure/exposure and what we need to write in our own private journals.

I think to a certain extent everyone writes in the first person whether they’re literally doing so or not. Judging by myself (and who am I to judge?), everything is first-person. It’s all about me me me. Even when I’m saying he he he. Some people’s writing is so distinctive, yours for example, and Veronica’s, that pure fiction from your pens is really nothing but Marianne and Veronica. That’s a good thing. Because in my case, the me-me-me may be sheer egotism, while in your cases it's pure individual spirit shining through. I hope I'm being clear here.

Speaking of growing up…if Natalie Goldberg has taken, who was it, Suzuki Roshi? off the pedestal, perhaps this too is part of growing up. What is growing up other than achieving a continually more accurate picture of how things really are? (Well, one definition anyway.) I’m sure you know that in the Tibetan tradition, you are called to look upon your guru as a Buddha. Chögyam Trungpa drank, smoked stogies, caroused and hung out with Beats and hippies. Yet he is revered all over North America and Europe. And it’s not a question of overlooking the flaws, but placing them somehow in the puzzle so that you can reconcile the master with the guy who shits and farts. (Sorry, did I say that out loud?) But here again, it’s not necessary or even advisable to do it in public.

Leslie said...

Your description of Nat's book has me intrigued, Marianne. I would like to read it now ... I too struggle with what is fair game in memoir and what is bad taste or over the line of loyalty and common decency.

Is Nat having mid-life crisis, do you think?

Thanks for that blog, most interesting.