I am one of those writers who has learned to live with guilt. Guilt as a constant companion. Guilt as familiar as my shredded toothbrush, my bed quilt, my life’s companion. I never chose, not with my conscious mind, to betroth myself to the dread angel of guilt, but it happened anyway and it happened early. When I published my first novel-autobiographical in large part, or at least fueled by personal vendetta, recent sorrow, fury cooking on a low flame-my soon-to-be spouse asked me what my family would think when they read this book. “Don’t worry,” I answered him, “they don’t read.” But this book, my first novel (published in 1968), they did, and most of them never spoke to me again, although some brave cousins resumed after a lapse of 20 years. They were right to be angry. I spilled the beans. I let the family skeletons out of the closet and described them rattling their not so attractive bones in public. I observed little flaws, minor greeds, accidents of character, and I shone the brightest, harshest light I could create on each of them, one by one. Ah, self-righteous soul I was, teller of the truth, seeker of vengeance for the petty error of fellow humans, blood relatives.
My Aunt Libby rushed to her neighborhood bookstore on Madison Avenue and bought out all the copies of the book so that her friends would not be tempted to purchase it. Of course, the bookstore ordered more and more, providing my publisher with a welcome jump in sales. That was fine. But the fact that my mother’s sister felt betrayed by me, her formerly beloved niece, was not so easy to ignore. Guilt! I went to bed with it and rose with it each morning. Of course, if I could not bear the responsibility for making others unhappy and angry, I would have stopped writing. That would have been the moral and the self-protective thing to do. But the proof is in puddings, and obviously I could bear it well enough, and I kept right on, book after book, time after time.
I know when my urge to write about the personal began. I was in a writing course at Sarah Lawrence College and the professor, a middleweight poet, responded to the firsthand report of a young woman, named Willa, who had described her six weeks in Las Vegas waiting for a divorce decree. I was riveted to her words. They were simple and clear, and as she read I saw the bars and casinos and her stark loneliness, and I wanted to have written her piece instead of mine, which was about Persephone. The poet teacher said her words were worthless. Who would care about her little divorce, he asked. I knew he was wrong. I cared. I was jealous of her. She was the real thing, a writer. In those days, we half-thought that your subject needed to be war or bullfighting or drinking or overthrowing the king. Willa’s piece taught me that my subject was at hand, closer than I had believed.
At first, when I was under 30, I thought that art and truth justified anything, or at least it balanced the sin. I believed and I still do, although with more humility and some ironic perspective, that each human story with its own full, sordid facts, when brought to the surface, when shared, serves us all. I thought that through the particular the universal would reveal its face. At least, that was the rational justification. It’s not untrue, it’s just not the whole truth.
I learned that the Talmud claims that the one unforgivable sin is to bring blood to the face of another by embarrassing them in public. This is considered by the sages to be soul murder. In other words, to write unkindly is to draw blood. Writing, then, is the nastiest immoral cut of all. A writer who shames others is banned from redemption forever. That gave me pause, but it didn’t stop me. For reasons embedded in my own story, in my own compromises, for reasons too complicated to explain, I kept on, returning again and again to the scene of the original crime and again wrote it all in the pages of a book. Guilt never left me alone, always kept me up at night, always pushed me here and there, but never stopped me. That’s because guilt, like the side effects of steroids for weight lifters, was the price of entering into the ring.
Yes, the book reviewers, the critics in public places, sometimes attacked me. They called me out, sin for sin. They said, in very strong and stinging language, that I was not nice. For a girl raised in the 40’s and 50’s, that is hard, and harder still because I did not think them entirely wrong. I took comfort from the fact that other writers of my time also played in these same forbidden fields. When Philip Roth wrote of his Monkey or his mother, was he not playing in the same moral minefield? When Saul Bellow wrote of ex-wives and colleagues, when others too numerous to count, from Harold Brodkey to Bernard Malamud, drew portraits of those nearest and dearest to them, weren’t they also guilty, guilty like me? And wasn’t I glad they did it? Wasn’t everybody, really? But what if my own books are just mean and don’t plumb deep enough to reach the general human experience? Here doubt is added to guilt, a cocktail that could paralyze a writer’s tongue. Not mine, which keeps on wagging even after some critic or other has cut off my head.
Now I have friends who tell me that they don’t like the personal exposures that my books include. They say that the personal is private, that privacy is a value I have trashed, my own and others’. I have friends who feel a very strong horror at my writer’s behavior. And I understand that. I am inclined sometimes to agree with them. Who wouldn’t? There is an aggressive, transgressive, egotistical, nervy, exploitative aspect to writing personally. No one has to tell me, I know that’s true. The portrait of my soul (re: Dorian Gray) would scare the hell out of the prophet Elijah himself. Privacy is very much on everyone’s mind now, as it has been so violated in our political court. I approve of privacy in principle in the same way I approve of peace. I also don’t like collateral damage. But what can you do?
So I live with guilt, almost by now a familiar friend. I do not pretend it isn’t there. I do not assume that in the wider range of history it matters at all whether I do or do not write. I do not think that my guilt is a noble matter or that my writing carries any necessity at all except to me.
But writers better than I am or worse than I am all know very well what it feels like to push guilt aside and go back to the work itself, and keep going out of habit, out of a wild and most absurd hope, a hope that won’t go away, that something golden, something treasured, something of value lies in the next paragraph, the one still to be written.