The Futility of Writing

Angst. . . .

Century XX, Oil on Canvas, 1995, Richard Van Ingram
Century XX, Oil on Canvas, 1995, Richard Van Ingram

If you can’t say anything nice about someone, write a memoir.

Damn it, I would tell all, except I’m that guy, the one with two fatal qualities: I know where the bodies are buried and in more than one instance I’ve been sworn to secrecy.

No, not real bodies, but worse: I know histories – personal, family, local. God cursed me with curiosity and memory and the capacity to pay close attention, look for links between events or motives. And God inspired hosts of people, over time, to confide in me. Because I am that guy, the one who knows a lot of background and the one who doesn’t spill it to just anyone. Even for people I bear a grudge toward – oh, and there are many – I have precious little to publicly share about them.

In this age of confession and exhibitionism, I am a man with much to sell coupled with an unwillingness to sell out.

I can write about my life only in the most abstract and general of ways, even on something as anonymous as the web . . . because I am not as anonymous as the web. My friends, is it that I am eaten up with virtue? I am loyal to my oaths or prudent in my speech? Well, I am fairly loyal to oaths and attempt to guard my speech – but I am no example for the ages of a “good man.” My silence is not always the product of goodness.

Is it that I am fearful of what others might say should I speak of them? I am all but disowned at this point by most who are related to me, I recently made a concerted effort to withdraw for an extended period from most I speak and associate with (as is my life-long habit), and I am over a thousand miles away from the state in which I was born. And my skin is like rawhide, at this point, from the verbal (and, occasionally, physical) abuse I’ve caught over the years for speaking my mind.

The fact is, far more people in my life are afraid of what I might say should I speak than I am afraid of in return.

And then there’s the ironic thing: I’m the guy who chooses not to speak. And I’m not always certain why.

Maybe that’s why many acquaintances and family members end up so worried they ask me to swear to never write about them or an event I witnessed or know about, or whatever: There’s always that possibility I might decide to speak. I might even tell the truth.

And, like I said, if you can’t say something nice about someone, write a memoir. The truth rarely has a damn thing to do with “nice” or “pretty.” Human lives are messy car wrecks where our blood and guts get intermingled in the weirdest ways before being hosed down the gutter. Writing is always done from a point of view on the wreckage of these collisions, and it is impossible to mention some things without hurting someone – some things in one’s life are simply hurtful or frightening or unfathomable or senseless.

The people involved in my vital drama may have little grasp on what happened, the writer may have too little (or much) perspective, and others may have been impacted in ways the writer cannot know or express. The full ramifications of choices or inaction most certainly have yet to be played out. Anything one says is bound to be incomplete since it is about something unfinished, or something that still echoes and aches in the bones of others. That is the odd thing about the truth when truth concerns human events: Life is always a thing left to be completed, so anything said about it may be true, but only to a degree, and always from a perspective, a point of view. A point of view that is, by definition, partially obscured and partially informed.

Should one speak the truth about many things, gentle reader, I can guarantee that there are those who will be unable to forgive the fact that the truth about a relationship, or the dissolution of a marriage, or why one made the choices one did, or one’s thoughts and reactions to others’ actions and motivations is always incomplete, never perfect.

I can guarantee that most people would rather hear the ringing sound of silence than ever hear a public consideration of their actions as seen through the eyes of another, even if that consideration is serious, literary – even philosophical—, and the furthest thing from gossip. Because that consideration will always be through the eyes of another, and, for many, will always look like a cruel caricature rather than the ghostly representation of reality, along with someone’s personal feelings and perspective available for inspection.

If one speaks about what one has experienced and lived through, one is damned, because some fragment of an audience seems to expect to hear the Deity speak, not a human. If one is silent, one is damned . . . maybe because there is a Deity that expects to hear humans bear witness to evens in the manner proper to mortals, in a human voice, in the sounds of men and women rejoicing and lamenting, getting it wrong and right at the same time.

To grasp this much, to see both sides of this terrible problem . . .maybe that is the blackest pit. Because it brings one face-to-face, as a writer and a reasoning person, with the question: “What do I owe my audience?” – which is immediately followed by: “What do I owe myself?” And both involve a question that is enough to kill one’s ability to write at all: “What do I owe the truth?”

How, or whether, we try to answer that last question opens and closes myriad paths in answering the other two.

Most of the time, it is in facing this question that I choose to fall silent, or hide the notebooks I’ve scribbled in for years, or transmute my experiences into fictions or theories, all image, no undisguised flesh and bone from the wreck.

Stammer. Hold it in. Go silent. Work on ulcer #8.

No answers to be had here, folks. Move along. Maybe you can take a souvenir of your own from my wreckage, as much of it as I can share.

That’s about it for today.

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Comments 4 comments

Richard VanIngram profile image

Richard VanIngram 6 years ago from San Antonio, Texas Author

Again, thank you epigramman. High praise and deeply felt in return.


epigramman profile image

epigramman 6 years ago

your hubs are like a drug - very addictive and it takes me places where I have never gone before....


Richard VanIngram profile image

Richard VanIngram 6 years ago from San Antonio, Texas Author

I agree with you. I think memoirs, at their best, are catharsis -- with some self-exploration. They should say more about the author's interior life than anything else: the category of confessional literature like St. Augustine's "Confessions" is an example of this. Opposed to this is a great deal of modern confession, which is really exhibitionism -- like Rousseau's "Confessions" which reads almost as a parody of St. Augustine. Memoirs can have an element of history about them, personal history, autobiography -- but many contemporary attempts fail to concern themselves with this sufficiently; they are not that conscientious about history & its demands....


Paper Wolf profile image

Paper Wolf 6 years ago from Texas

The problem is that many memoirs have focused on victimhood, rather than forgiveness. Ultimately your memoir is your story and your recollection of events. Memoirs are not historical factual documents, but a personal story from memory. It’s ok for someone to disagree. If you believe it is the truth, and it is a true recollection for you of events, then it can rightfully be called your memoir. It seems to me writing a memoir is a form of catharsis, a purging that answers your questions. Love is what you owe your audience, and yourself. Ultimately, it is all about relationship, and relationship is the expression of love for us all. It is the basis of our very existence.

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