Authenticity. Or the problem of the far away faraway.

When I told my sister I wanted to cut my nails because my manicure made me feel like Barbie, she looked me square on and said, “Mandy. That’s a good thing.”

While staying at her place over Christmas, I came home one night to find her on the couch with the dogs. She was wearing pink leopard flannel pajamas and drinking a mango margarita from a Butterbeer mug and watching The Voice. This is what I like about her: nobody else inhabits their preferences that joyfully.

She has kind things to say about every performer on The Voice, even as she critiques their wardrobe. And I think this is what other people like about her, too. She has specific tastes, but feels no obligation to defend them. She is like the anti-hipster, wholly sincere, consistent to the core. She can wax happily about the luminance of someone’s skin in a Manet painting and the cake-to-icing ratio of a Little Debbie Christmas Tree Cake. She is intelligent, hyper-feminine, quick to laugh, and quick to point out her flaws.

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I have always wanted to say what I intend to say with no thought for others’ judgment, to feel not an ounce of self-consciousness when someone scrolls through my iTunes library. I don’t want to be the person who works SAT vocabulary into the conversation when she meets someone smart, as if desperate to say, “See! Me too!” But I am.

I’ve been thinking about authenticity in this new year. Going from Vancouver to Appalachia and back seems to do that, to call up the space between what’s meaningful and what seems constructed to incite a sensation akin to meaning. Take, for example, the Contemporary Christmas Eve service at the Methodist church. There was bread and grape juice (Methodists don’t do wine), the Lord’s Prayer, a reading from Luke, an acoustic guitar, candles and Silent Night. But no altar, no hymnals. Instead two large projectors aired a slickly-produced video about the many distractions of the holiday season. It’s fairly standard Christmas sermon stuff, but it felt especially hollow up on the screens. I wanted to hear the pastor talk, to dwell in the sanctuary of a sanctuary. As a devout teenager, I could always summon gratitude at church, especially when the lights went down for the candlelight service. Maybe I was hoping for some echo of that. But I only felt the fullness of the evening’s chicken casserole and that last glass of pinot grigio.

Sometimes I worry that the longer I live in Vancouver, the more alienated I become from the place I grew up. It begins to feel too far away. I notice Food City sells Duck Dynasty beer koozies and home no longer feels like home but instead like a satire of rural America. But two weeks later I’m at Vancouver’s Whole Foods grasping a $5 organic chocolate bar while examining a slab of soap that looks like Jell-O and I wonder how this life feels any more authentic. I am, especially in the holiday season, ever aware of the odd balance between being agreeable and being wasteful. I wrap gifts in the cartoon Santa paper that I know will be ripped off and stuffed in a garbage bag the very next morning. It’s easier, I’ve learned, than protesting. And what’s a little wasted paper compared to the fuel required to fly across the continent? I receive more gifts than I could want or need or store in my tiny apartment, and yet I understand that to complain about or reject them is to reject the giver herself. I don’t know how to be both a good member of my Appalachian clan and a thoughtful consumer.

I’m finally reading Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle and I have to confess: I don’t know if I’m going to finish it. It, too, feels like conspicuous consumption, like a pop song with only one chord. It’s the kind of book people describe as a “remarkable true story.” This much is true. But there’s something about the way Walls skirts every opportunity for reflection that drives me crazy. The book’s thesis might be summed up like an article in People Magazine: “This all happened; isn’t it terrible and weird?”

After scouring the internet, it appears I am the only person who feels this way. So let me defend my likely unpopular attitude about a book I’ve only half-read (I know) with a theory I’ve been developing about nonfiction writing. Here it is:

Memoir, especially the scenic, plot-driven kind like The Glass Castle, is largely ontological. It says, “Here’s a true story about living in the Appalachian Mountains in 2014.” Or, “Here’s what it was like to roam around the desert under the loose supervision of neglectful parents.” It tells us something about the nature of being. If it’s something new or idiosyncratic or unconventional, all the better.

Essays, by contrast, are more epistemological, that is to say they are interested in knowledge and its acquisition. Essays investigate what we know, and how we know what we know, and why intimate knowledge of the human condition can feel beautiful or terrible or perhaps both at once.

Of course a single piece of writing could explore the nature of a childhood roaming about the southwest AND reflect on how the stories we tell (or hide) about our families control our sense of the world. It could move between ontology and epistemology, between narration and reflection.

Most of the reviews praise Walls’ neutrality in depicting her parents. She never succumbs to excoriating these people who, inarguably, deserve it. But I want to see her adult self wrestle with the realization that the friendly women who lived next door were prostitutes. I want to know how she felt when, after a stranger groped her in the night, her parents still refused to lock the doors and close the windows, citing the family’s need for fresh air over her own sense of safety. Maybe Walls does this later in the book and I should just stick it out and reserve judgement. Maybe.

We use the term “essay” to refer to the short form exploration of an idea (I’ve written about this before, so perhaps I am back to where I started) but what about book-length essays? Why isn’t there a term for this? This problem of taxonomy is, for me, a larger problem. A problem of imagination. I had some intuition about what kind of book I wanted to write, but until I found an adequate model I couldn’t quite imagine it, much less describe it to someone else.

I’m also reading Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, which is nearly plot-less. It is, ostensibly, a book about coping with her mother’s Alzheimer’s. But it moves through the history of canning fruit, and the circumstances that enabled Mary Shelley to write Frankenstien, and Dutch vanitas paintings—all subjects I knew very little about—en route to its actual subject. Reading the book is like opening boxes to find new, neatly packaged boxes inside; it feels like watching a sharp mind in action. Solnit moves about freely, unconcerned with that great mantra of all writing classes: show don’t tell. In this way, she is like my sister: gracefully inhabiting or abandoning convention as it suits her. But there is some risk in this approach. As Richard Gilbert points out, her style, “makes for more demanding reading—less warning of new topics and less time for a reader’s preparation. You’re immersed a new story before you know it. Some readers will get lost and bored and close the book.”

As a reader and as a writer, a wandering, essayistic style feels more authentic to me (as perhaps this particular post well illustrates). And maybe I am stuck with essaying because my life has been (thankfully) uninteresting thus far. The plot diagram of my life is pretty flat. Reading Solnit feels like getting permission to loosen my grasp on chronology and scene, to let the engine of the book be the movement between ideas instead of through time.

When my sister was a kid, she put her stuffed animals on rotation, sleeping with a different one each night so as not to show favorites. Last week, when I told her that Roscoe was sick again, she said, “The thing that really gets me is thinking how upset he must be if he has to poop in the house. You know it must be so terrible wishing someone would come home to take him out, but no one does.” Maybe her authenticity grows out of this empathy toward all creatures living and stuffed. Maybe it is easy to be less invested in the judgement of others when you’re busy identifying with them.

I have one more depiction of authentic kindness before I go: this website. It was a Christmas gift from a friend who says he hopes it might give me a home for my book, a website of one’s own. So now you still can find me at mandylen.wordpress.com but also at the very searchable thelovestoryproject.ca. One day I will be the kind of writer who freely abandons convention, and I will be the kind of gift-giver who is so perfectly generous.

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30 thoughts on “Authenticity. Or the problem of the far away faraway.

  1. Mandy, What an interesting contrast, Glass Castle and The Faraway Nearby! I have taught Glass Castle many times, because the kids just love it—they want plot (events) and a protagonist they can identify with. Basically undergrads, especially 18 year olds, want what makes bestsellers. The book is a gold mine for their papers too, because of all the kinds of abuse and the motifs. Walls is so skillful that gradually I have forgiven her for the literary sin of lack of reflection, though Francine Prose in the New York Times did not, declaring the book is well done “but not art.” She doesn’t bother to say why, but it’s clear it’s the lack of reflection from an older, wiser intelligence. My taste runs more to Solnit, though as you point out I quibbled a bit about her latest book’s topic shifts.

    • Thanks, Richard. I read Prose’s review and was wondering if (hoping?) her criticism ran along the same lines of mine, though she’s oddly quiet about how a memoir becomes art. I can easily imagine my students would like reading and writing about Walls’ book. She is certainly skilled with using vivid, telling details and keeping the tension high.

  2. Sounds to me like you simply desire depth in your reading. This is not singular need–plenty of us out there loathe stories that seem to graze the surface without ever plunging into anything juicy or meaningful.

    Some people just like looking at the pretty orange and some people like sinking their teeth into the sweetness. I like to get to know characters so well that everything that happens to them and every reaction they have becomes a compelling harmony of intricate moving parts. The deeper subtleties excite even as the raw action takes place on the surface. Otherwise, it feels like a symphony is being attempted with one instrument, maybe two. Yawn.

    But not everybody is like us. How sad.

    • There is a lot to be said for story. And I don’t blame people who just want a good plot. I mean, sometimes I feel that way about watching movies: I want to escape, to not think too hard about too much for a while. I’m glad we have media that offers this. But I guess, when it comes to writing, I’ll always prefer depth and sentence-level style to story.

  3. Great post. Also, I haven’t read The Glass Castle, because someone I spoke to felt the same way about it as you do. You’re not alone, it just might seem that way on the internet;)

  4. I might be the one other person whho felt the same way you did as I read GC. The narrator always seemed too removed for me to believe every word she said. Even in interviews, the writer was too glib to be believed, so I felt often this book was like the other fake memoir that had fooled Oprah. Then I met thhe writer through a friend whose brother is maaried to Jeanneette Wallss. I feel more than ever that much of this novel is ffantasy. Trust your reader’s instincts.

    • I can’t comment on its authenticity (and on the whole I think we all–writers and readers–benefit from taking memoirists at their word when possible), but I think glib might be a good word to describe the adult narrator’s approach to her life. I haven’t seen any interviews with Jeanette Walls, but it’s good to know I’m not alone in my criticism!

  5. You can conform and try to please people… or be authentic and please yourself. I found that those who are authentic please not only themselves but others. I also realize that since everyone wants to conform — it is easier to be authentic… because others will try to conform with you.

  6. Amazing Post…Authenticity is such a wide concept. Sometimes being authentically inauthentic can be something as well. Your narrative about your sister really painted a picture of someone “just naturally being themselves.” I love that.

  7. I think you are amazingly thoughtful, and although I know very little about the complexities of writing, and have read neither of the books you discuss, I feel as if I am more enlightened, although it may just be a feeling of lifted spirits from your tone.
    I hope you are granted with clear vision and direction in your writing soon, indeed.

  8. Beautifully written! And I agree with you re The Glass Castle. There was a tremendous opportunity for depth that wasn’t even attempted; perhaps she intended to not go there, perhaps she couldn’t.

  9. Best line ever:
    This is what I like about her, nobody else inhabits their preferences that joyfully. 🙂 There is something to observing that and also inhabiting that space. 🙂

    Very interesting post.

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