Sunday, February 26, 2017

Unspeakable topics of discussion



     The murkiest thoughts often come closest to home. Debating whether to share them with the public is another thing.  It ‘s all in the timing, too.
     In my case, I was sitting down to my laptop considering what I could develop into a column, when lo and behold, right next to me was a book, “Unspeakable - And Other Subjects of Discussion” by Meghan Daum (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, copyright 2014).


     Daum’s book has been marked up and dog-eared from numerous readings. It’s a treasure trove of impressions from a talented writer — those ones that are painful to verbalize and yet, linger in the back of your mind.
     If you ever shared such sensitive private topics as Daum writes about with a best friend or family member – even a stranger in a doctor’s waiting room – what in the world would they think of you? Should you keep them to yourself? Perhaps, certain topics are best opened-up after-the fact when outcomes have been achieved and a valuable point can be made.
     Daum comments in her introduction, “Over twenty years now I have been making something of a specialty of writing about myself.”
     Daum sounds like an older sister of mine with more mileage in the press.
     “Serving as my own main subject has been a great convenience,” she goes on to say.
      I agree again.
     Sometimes I think that I am lazy when I write too much about myself.  It could be an easy way out. Then again, it might not.
     Like Daum, my very best writing makes me a peripheral character, the narrator, rather than the star of the show. The pieces I look back on that are most worthy come from the outside world. Granted, it is the way I see things, but the focus is off me. I know when I have hit the target when I receive a lot of reader response. And it is not always of the thumbs-up variety either. Negative replies mean that I have hit a nerve, and that is positive engagement on the reader’s part.        
      Daum’s book considers if some of life’s most burning issues are inappropriate for public discussion, and for confiding with family and friends as well.
    “It’s about the unspeakable thoughts many of us harbor.”
     Should such thoughts be left dormant and private, or with the skill of a writer like Daum, be brought out in the open without useless ranting, raving and complaining of the unfairness of life? 
     Personally, that’s when I take those thoughts and turn them into fiction where I can stretch the truth and bend it without making myself uncomfortable and in the spotlight. That’s my approach to writing a novel.  Or, I put in just enough detail to break it away from my life.  I don’t know what else to do without exposing myself to massive scrutiny.
     Stories and real life often mirror each other, but in a distorted way. It is hard to show my vulnerability, although if the truth is told, others feel the same way and are relieved that I am speaking for them when I write.
     “You put in words what I couldn’t say,” is a comment I often hear from readers.
     I have wondered how author Joyce Carol Oates writes such gruesome murder gothic novels. To look at her petite self in person so prim and proper, you wouldn’t guess that she has had difficult periods, too, that are unspeakable, yet work well in fiction.


     Daum breaks out and writes wonderful memoir pieces about living life in an imperfect world. She recognizes in her mother’s passing that she isn’t part of an average family at all – who is?  She has spent much of her life faking it for fear others would catch-on to their abnormal behavior.   
      It may seem unspeakable, but Daum was reading a piece on Hillary Clinton in Vogue magazine and her only brother was checking his Facebook account while watching intermittently their mother’s last couple hours on earth in the hospital.
     And the week before, the two of them had already cleaned out their mother’s home before she’d even died.
     That’s the truth, and Daum comes clean with her feelings. She’s not heartless when you know her dysfunctional family history. She’s honest.
     Then during Daum’s single period in life she dated guys not for being part of a couple and combating loneliness, but she was doing field research – looking for characters, for experiences to write about.
     As a dog lover, often her emotions are stronger for an animal than they are for humans, which she says explains why she frequently puts on a show and is a phony with others. She rails at herself for being so pathetic. Don’t we all?
     You can’t help but love a person who tells it like it is about her weaknesses and flaws. Her honorable ways are nothing to be ashamed about for the rest of us has similar thoughts, and we conveniently hide them most of the time. They surface, though, over and over, and not always in acceptable ways.
     I haven’t learned how to be a writer like Megan Daum yet, and certainly, I don’t want to copy her style. I have my own voice and stuff I want to say.
     In the meantime, I will go back to mining my own life for material, and it never fails, there is more to my own story.