Lest you think my last post on writing proposed lying, deceit, or reckless insensitively writing your nonfiction, let’s consider it from another direction. I want to look at Nancy J. Brandwein’s “Scraping the Bottom,” an essay published recently in the fantastic literary journal Hippocampus. But keep in mind Kaylene Johnson’s essay discussed in my last post.
Brandwein‘s at wit’s end with her husband, possibly with their marriage. Imagine writing an essay/memoir that coincides with the song “Is That All There Is?” The song hums through my mind as the memoir progresses. I’m reading that Brandwein’s bliss, relief, and happiness of her once-young fantasies are all but dead memories.
“Back then irritation was a precursor to romance. Now irritation, is, well, irritation,” she writes.
I can feel my own grimace grow. I can feel the clench of having been in a relationship too long. But there’s more.
“She is looking at her husband’s profile with seething resentment.”
“I couldn’t help seeing the petrified bedroom and living room furniture as metaphor for marriage in midlife.”
There is no telling if the author is still married to her husband at the time of publication, but they were at the end of the essay. In fact, she had a beautiful essayistic twist. Not only does it delight with the subtle capacity for a twist. It also shocks at its exceptional intimacy. Here we have a different angle to exposing private facts through nonfiction.
In “Scraping” Brandwein does this to herself and her husband, giving us an intimate view of the interior of one’s life– one that’s
daring in its revelatory details of a crumbling marriage. Yet never once does this essay come off as a ranting, self-pitying journal entry. That’s where a lot of new writers go wrong.
Johnson’s “Privacy in Creative Nonfiction” addressed that. The subject such as Brandwein’s could so easily be initially seen as a question from amateur, yet what we tackle in essays and memoir— literary nonfiction overall— is the legitimate concern of writers everywhere.
“It turns out that permission to write about these hard truths is more easily gained than one might imagine—so long as truth, compassion, and empathy are braided throughout the work,” Johnson writes.
Here’s another example of how Brandwein might have forgotten the professional side of writing and lost it all to a handwritten entry in her journal:
“The last leg of our trip becomes a struggle to keep from sobbing, which is hard to manage when The Shirelles are singing Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? Richard wrote out the lyrics for me when we first lived together, his way of saying that yearning uncertainty was now behind us. Thinking of the numbing certainty of our life together, I blurt, ‘I can’t bear it!’”
This is indeed an essay. Brandwein brings it round, trying to figure something out in true essayistic style. She doesn’t become sappy or melodramatic. She partially makes fun of herself and tells us what “exactly” happened to get her to turn it all around, to stop being a crybaby. Why did she do it? “There is something freeing about confronting the disappointments and limitations of our marriage.”
Did Brandwein ask her husband’s permission to write this and that detail, to publish the thing? Did he have a chance to look at it before it went to the publisher, even before it was submitted? After all, as Terry Tempest Williams once wrote, “The minute we pick up our pen, we are on the path of betrayal.”
Now let’s flip that statement onto its side. Could we see in Brandwein’s essay what Johnson says in hers– that all writing is about revenge?
Or we might liken it to Freudian psychoanalysis. “Freudian psychology allowed for the exploration of private experiences, which in turn revealed the motivations behind our public personas.” Freud believed psychoanalysis might allow man to take a deeper look at himself, “to control himself more from within than through external authority…” Johnson writes. We as nonfiction writers do this. We work through our insecurities through our writing (and sometimes psychotherapy too). It is not, however, our responsibility to ensure that the subjects of our work are equally as secure in self-awareness and/or self-exploration.
Be on the look out for a third post in this series on privacy in nonfiction.