A few months before my third book, Truth Serum,
It may seem absurdly naive of me not to have understood, until so late, that a public probing of my personal life would be inevitable; after all, I had written in a genre which, rightly or wrongly, carries the promise of gossip and revelation. Interviewers would feel compelled, even invited, to ask impertinent questions, and reviews would of necessity touch upon the book�s core subjects: my romantic relationship with a woman who became a lesbian; the psychotherapist who injected me with heady but ineffectual doses of sodium pentothol; my being the HIV-negative partner in a "sero-different" couple. Scant attention for the book, a prospect I�d earlier viewed as the ultimate bad luck, now seemed like a potential blessing, and when other writers trotted out the old adage about negative criticism being better than none, I nursed a secret, self-defeating hope that, once out in the world, my book would be as innocuous as a polar bear in a snowstorm.
Of course, in the three years it took to write the book, I had deliberately explored personal subject matter. But a good memoir does more than dredge up secrets from the writer�s past. A good memoir filters a life through resonant narrative, and in doing so must achieve a balance between language and candor. It was not the subject matter of my memoirs that I hoped would be startling, but rather language�s capacity to name what was once nameless, to define what had once been vague and chaotic. The chief privilege of writing a memoir, it seems to me, is the opportunity to go back and make sense of events that left you dumbstruck, mired in confusion, unarmed with the luminous power of words. I�d purposely chosen intimate subjects, not in order to make them public, but because they drove me to probe more deeply the hidden meaning, imagery and metaphors embedded in memory. Only when the book was on the verge of publication, however, did I realize that this gambit might be treated not as an aesthetic strategy but, rather, as a matter of exhibitionism.
The first intrusion into my prepublication vacuumcame in the form of a phone call, and it bore out my worst fears. A journalist wanted to ask me a few questions for an article he was writing on the preponderance of memoirs about to flood the bookstores. My publicist had warned me that the man felt a great deal of ambivalence about the current popularity of memoirs, and was intent on challenging their legitimacy as a literary form. Still, she thought a mention in Vogue magazine was worth what she predicted would be a brief conversation. Two hours after he had called, the receiver was still pressed to my ear, and the journalist, a former book reviewer for the Washington Post, was practically pleading with me to confirm his anti-memoir stance. It seemed he had set out long ago to make some important point by taking memoirs to task, but once he�d read a few books and had spoken to their authors, he could find little about them that was categorically reprehensible. His conviction was fading, and he needed someone�s approval in order to sustain his journalistic pluck.
"Don�t you think there�s a connection," he asked me, "between the popularity of talk shows and the popularity of memoirs?"
"Only if the author�s motive in writing a memoir is to shock or lay blame or heal himself by airing psychic damage. But there are different kinds of memoirs, just as there are different kinds of novels, and I don�t think it�s fair to lump a tell-all in the same category with other, more literary works of autobiography."
"But don�t you see the rise of the memoir as part of our culture�s narcissism?"
"People have been writing about themselves since the dawn of literature. Why can�t a writer of prose bear witness to the particulars of his or her life, as poets so often do?"
Our conversation took an unexpected psychotherapeutic turn when Mr. S. confessed, without my prodding, that there was something about memoirs that left him feeling "betrayed." By this time, his formerly businesslike voice had become agitated; he was going to vent his frustration no matter how long it took. I feel compelled to mention that he kept me on the telephone by offering pellets of occasional praise, assuring me that my book was good, an exception to the rule; although I was skeptical, it worked like a charm, since even insincere praise produces in me an almost Pavlovian surge of good will. "The problem," he told me, "is that I feel disappointed after reading a memoir because I�ve met a construct and not the actual person."
"If you want to be really disappointed," I told him, "think how often you meet a construct face to face. Or how often people you think you know turn out to be constructs!"
"Yes, but there�s a contract between reader and memoirist, an unstated agreement that the writer is telling you the truth."
"Well, Mr. S., I read that contract, too, and I thought it only obligated me to tell my version of the truth."
"At least in your book you occasionally say things like �I don�t remember exactly� or �It seems to me in retrospect . . .�"
I had never thought of equivocation as a virtue, but again, I take my compliments where I can get them. "No intelligent reader really believes that a writer�s memory is infallible. I mean, wouldn�t the �truth�" � I drew invisible quotes in the air, that postmodern tic � "wouldn�t the �truth� be as boring and shapeless as an unedited transcript? Memoirists have to sculpt and manipulate the truth in order to make it coherent and vivid and persuasive. That�s the paradox � only through artifice can one be truthful. Besides, there�s a difference between facts and truth, and I don�t always rely on the facts to get to the truth."
"But if you�re going to distort or exaggerate at all, why wouldn�t you call it fiction?"
"But if you�re honoring real people and actual events, why would you call it fiction?"
A moment of silence. I glanced at the clock, as I assume did he.
Like Mr. S., I too reserve a healthy dose of suspicion about trends in the arts, particularly when those trends are commodified, turned into aesthetic or ideological bandwagons. And in all fairness, Mr. S. was asking some intelligent questions about the hazy border between fact and fiction, about the writer�s responsibility, about the nature of artifice. Still, if one dismissed any genre or art movement because it raised difficult and unanswerable questions, as the memoir did for him, there would be no art and literature except on T-shirts and coffee mugs. It could even be argued that the better the art, the more difficult and unanswerable the questions it raises. Both Mr. S. and I entertained, in fact, many of the same aesthetic questions; the difference between us (it seems to me in retrospect) is that he was troubled by ambiguity, and I was stirred by it.
For the remainder of what for both of us had been an exhausting conversation, he asked me a few routine questions about my previous books, particularly the novel of mine that had preceded Truth Serum and was based, I informed him, on the death of my older brother from leukemia. When the conversation finally ended, I sensed in his voice the disappointment and betrayal he had spoken of earlier; all our philosophical footwork, all our aesthetic sparring, had done pitifully little to strengthen his position.
My conversation with Mr. S. was a joy comparedto my reaction to the prepublication reviews. The first, I�m happy to report, was a review in Kirkus, and not since kindergarten have five-pointed stars seemed such radiant geometric marvels. When my agent read me the review, my shoulders, which for weeks had been arching toward my ears, fell gently earthward. The wait, I believed, was over, my worry vindicated by sweet hyperbole. I clung to the review�s last line, which urged the widest possible readership because of Truth Serum�s craftsmanship. The very next day, however, my agent called with the review from Publisher�s Weekly. He is a tactful soul, and it pained me to hear his stoic tone when duty forced him to pelt me with insults, albeit someone else�s. The reviewer had claimed that my book might be of interest to "gay professionals" (by which I thought he really meant "professional gays"), but that its craftless rambles were an attempt to claim that life, "when played in a homosexual key, is somehow more heroic."
I brooded over this review for weeks. During this period of relentless internal monologues, I received another phone call from Mr. S. "I�ve finished the article," he announced brightly.
I chose "Oh" from the menu of appropriate noises, but couldn�t understand why he had called to tell me this.
"I felt I should warn you," he continued, "that although I say yours was one of the few memoirs I liked, I�m going to criticize you for not mentioning the death of your brother. I didn�t know you had a brother until you mentioned him in our phone conversation, and anyone reading your book would think that you were an only child." He cleared his throat. "Is that okay?"
"No" detonated inside my head, but I heard myself say, "You�re the critic."
In fact, I had three brothers, all of whom died from various ailments, a sibling history that strains even my credulity. I�d written about the death of my brothers twice before I began Truth Serum, and had consciously chosen not to cover that ground in another book. My brothers were much older than I (there was nearly 15 years� difference between my youngest brother and myself), and they lived away from home for the bulk of my youth. Very early in the writing of Truth Serum, I knew that a book concerned with homosexual awakening would sooner or later deal with AIDS and the population of friends I�ve lost to the disease. I also suspected I would write about my HIV-positive partner, Brian. To be blunt, I decided to limit the body count in this book in order to prevent it from collapsing under the threat of death.
I did my best to convey this reasoning to Mr. S., sighing with such a mix of melancholy and exasperation that my dog, Zack, walked over and planted himself at my side, as if to offer a sedative of warm fur and steady breath. "Would anything I�m telling you," I asked mid-explanation, "make a difference?"
"Well, no," he said. "I�ve already handed in the article. But I did say something positive about your discretion. I mean, being gay is no big deal these days. But in Secret Life, for example, the writer Michael Ryan writes about having sex with his dog! You wouldn�t do that . . . would you?"
When I looked down at Zack, he raised his brown eyes and thumped his tail in a most appealing way.
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Soon after the book came out, my publisher sentme on a small book tour. After a reading, people would sometimes commend me for my "honesty" and "courage" in writing about sexuality (an ironic compliment for someone who had faced the prospect of his book tour with all the backbone of a sponge). I thanked these people, but tried to explain that I felt neither honest nor brave when I worked with personal subjects because the rigors of shaping sentences and paragraphs overwhelmed any sense that I was dealing with risky or revealing subject matter. In the end, my history became so much raw material to temper in the forge of craft. In fact, the very familiarity of autobiographical material freed me up to concentrate on the sensual and emotional effects of language (for me the most pleasurable part of writing), instead of on the invention of story.
This "aesthetic distance," I began to see, had lulled me into a state of illusory safety while the memoirs were being written � an illusion reinforced by the fact that I inhabit the realm of the midlist writer, a no man�s land of chronic modesty and lowered expectations. The possibility that my book would garner much attention seemed fairly remote. At most I thought that, since the surge of memoirs by American writers was a topic of debate among people in the book business, some stray interest might fall my way. But once the tour was under way, it surprised me how frequently I was called upon to be a spokesperson for the memoir in general, or for the gay memoir in particular. For the first time in my career, I was part of a trend, and I found myself struggling against the prevailing current more often than swimming with it. It has always been hard enough for me to act as an advocate for my square inch of literary territory, and suddenly people expected me to answer questions about the literary marketplace, about the motives of other memoirists, about the suicide rate among gay youth, or the societal ramifications of same-sex marriage. In other words, people expected me to be a generalist because I employ the public medium of language, when in fact language has always brought me closer to the exception, the sui generis, the self in its nearly inexpressible complexity.
In San Francisco, as had happened throughout the book tour, people periodically came up to me and inquired about Brian�s health. I often couldn�t tell, for a disorienting instant, if these were people I knew, or people who knew Brian; perfect strangers possessed a vague familiarity because of their concern. This interest in the well-being of my beloved was heartening; it allowed me to believe my writing had been intimate and engaging enough to create allies in what has sometimes been for us an isolating despair. And yet, I was taken aback each time it happened, reminded anew how this potential connection with a reader is, in the writer�s long hours of solitude and uncertainty, at most a fond hope.
During the brief spate of readings and reviews, people began to materialize from my past. An Armenian girl from the second grade, whose sprightly manner I�d wanted desperately to emulate, phoned to say that she�d recognized herself in one memoir (she�s now a district-court judge and mother of two) and was curious to know what I�d been up to for the last 40 years. The flamboyant arts-and-crafts teacher from my junior high school thrust out a now age-spotted hand and introduced himself before a reading. These were impromptu, dreamlike reunions; it had been so long since I�d last seen these people, and I�d resuscitated their memory through such an effort of the will that it stunned me to realize they were real after all � the flesh-and-blood bases, and not the products, of my imagination.
It could be argued that people from a fiction writer�s past are just as likely to appear out of the blue when a novel is published. But typically these people have not populated the book one is promoting. One�s characters, a sane writer would be quick to agree, do not call with congratulations, or surprise you by showing up at a book signing, a little worn around the edges and eager to catch up on old times.
It can also be argued that the experience of having any book enter the world leaves the author open to unforeseen reactions, and to the discomfort those reactions might cause. And yet, no matter how fervently the memoirist believes he will have no trouble distinguishing himself from the thing he�s made, it�s not quite an autonomous product that becomes fodder for hype and is held beneath the magnifying glass of critical assessment.
The process of writing a memoir is insular, ruminative, a mining of privacies; once published, however, the book becomes an act of extroversion, an advertisement to buy, a performance of self rather than its articulation. The gap between these two experiences � the creation of a memoir and the ramifications of having written one � is wide enough, it seems to me, to bewilder even the most poised and gregarious among us. "No one who writes an autobiography can possibly know what they�re in for," said Geoffrey Wolff, "until that book comes out."
Of all the surprises, however, the greatest for me has been this: By writing a memoir, I�ve refashioned my past. Truth Serum has virtually supplanted my memories, so that when asked about my personal history, I conjure up some section of the book. After all that labor, after worrying every sentence into being, those passages are deeply rooted, closely known. Most scenes, in fact, are far more vivid than the inklings, speculations and stabs at accuracy from which they originated. It�s as if some distillate of memory flooded the pages and turned them sanguine, leaving all that isn�t recalled in that book pale and anemic.
The Polish writer Bruno Schulz said, "Memory is a filament around which our sense of the world has crystallized." Memoirs too are like those filaments; dipped in the cloudy solution of the past, words gather and congeal into books, and those books assume a life more intricate and eerie than the writer could second-guess.
A longer version of this piece will be included inGraywolf Forum Three � The Business of Memory: The Art of Re mem bering in the Age of Forgetting, edited by Charles Baxter, to be published in May by Graywolf Press.