my kitchen, your kitchen

Meredith asks if a blogger can go too far in disclosing things about her life on her blog.

It’s not a question I have an answer for, particularly not the case of the blog in question, which I’ve never read before and for which I therefore have no sense of context. It’s a question that interests me, though, because I used to be in a writing program where we often discussed very similar things.

As many of you know, before I ever dreamed of being a librarian, I killed some time by getting an MFA from a nonfiction writing program. It was a program known somewhat for being “the place where people go to figure out their pasts,” and I was there shortly after the mad memoir rush of the 1990s, when Kathryn Harrison told us about the affair she had with her father; Lucy Grealy wrote about the dozens of reconstructive surgeries she’d had on her face; Elizabeth Wurtzel told us about sex and drugs and rock and roll and mental illness; Dani Shapiro wrote about being the mistress of her best friend’s father; and on and on.

Some of the people in my program were horrified by such confessionals; some were horrified by some but not others; and some were trying to write their own. We were all, however, doing more or less what many bloggers do — we were trying to use our own experiences and ideas to illuminate something. Some people leaned more heavily on experiences and some more heavily on ideas. Some people’s experiences seemed more innocuous; others seemed at times like too much information. I sat in workshops where people were accused, because of something they’d written, of alcoholism, codenpendency, child neglect, and a host of other ills. (It’s a barrel of fun getting an MFA, let me tell you.)

“Do you value your writing more than your family’s privacy?” is a difficult question for many of us to answer. If you say yes, you sound selfish; if you say no, you risk sounding like you’re not really committed. People whose stories do not involve much in the way of marital discord, drug abuse, suicide, rape, and so on have in some ways an easier time of it, because the personal stories that they tell are less likely to invoke censure. But not everyone’s life is free from such ills. If you dig deep enough, almost no one’s life is. Coming to understand that was one of the things that made me start to feel okay about my own life.

When I was in college, I worked for campus patrol, and one of our recruiting posters said simply, “Some women take back the night every night.” Take Back the Night [Wikipedia entry; eponymous page of unknown origin] is the name given to a slew of activities — marches, rallies, speakouts, etc. — protesting violence against women. In my hometown, Take Back the Night was usually a march through downtown to a local park, where an open mike was set up and anyone who wanted to could tell her story. It’s a safe, quiet, and respectful space. Campus Patrol, a lot of the time, was nothing like that — it strove for the respect part but was generally more boisterous, often described as “the closest thing Vassar has to a fraternity” (supposing that it was a fraternity founded by Dungeons and Dragons geeks). I was fond of that poster, though, and I have tried to implement it in my life as much as I can. Sometimes taking back the night is a messy business — but I try my best to respect other people’s mess, and hope they’ll do the same for mine.

The title of this post, which I realize may be a bit obscure, comes from a poem by Anne Sexton called “For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further.” It’s from her first collection, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, and is addressed to her poetry teacher, John Holmes, who had advised her not to publish the material in the book, much of which dealt with her time in and out of mental hospitals, saying, “You’ll certainly outgrow it, and become another person, then this record will haunt you and hurt you. It will even haunt and hurt your children, years from now.”

Diane Wood Middlebrook, from whose biography of Sexton the above information is taken, goes on to say that Sexton sent the poem in a letter replying to Holmes, “a defense not only of her manuscript, but of the whole genre of poetry that would soon be labeled ‘confessional.'”

Whether or not Sexton’s life and work did affect her children aversely (one of them grew up to write her own book about it) is, like most of this post, a subject for debate. My views may strike some readers as abundantly clear, but they are in fact frequently in flux.

One thought on “my kitchen, your kitchen”

  1. I’m so glad you wrote this! Occasionally, someone will ask me when I’m going to start “really” writing. My stock response is “when a few more people have died.” Even the fiction I write in my head is heavily informed by my experiences, and I find it hard to write stuff that I know might hurt people. Not in a crazy Augusten Burroughs way, but still, probably stuff that would be construed as TMI. But, voyeur that I am, I’m a big fan of confessional memoir.

    I don’t think I knew you had an MFA. I’m always curious about people who have had that experience. It’s a plan that’s always in the back of my mind, although at this point, I don’t know if I’m near a school that offers such a program. Sometimes I think it might be the only way to force myself to write. How’s that for a lack of commitment?


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