Ethics and the Essayist: Ben McNally Books and Brunch

Happy New Year! I spent much of the autumn on tour to promote my book, so I’ve been slow to begin what I hope will be a much more regular blog in the coming months. Today I’d like to pick up where I left off with a blog about some of the ethical issues confronted by writers of essay and memoir.

Early in December, I was invited to speak at Toronto bookseller Ben McNally’s wonderful “Books and Brunch,” which takes place at the King Edward Hotel in Toronto. I shared the stage with Mary-Lou Finlay, Niall Ferguson, and Meryl Gordon. My guest was Robert Paul Weston, a good friend and author of the fabulous children’s book Zorgamazoo.

In such illustrious and experienced company, I was extremely nervous. In fact, I managed to knock over a chair and drop my books all over the floor before things even got underway! But Ben and his family were so warm and welcoming and the audience was so terrific that after I got over my attack of nerves I had a great time.

Here is a partial text of the talk that I gave. Thanks again to Ben McNally for providing me with this opportunity.

I grew up in a medical family, and a particular kind of medical family at that, because my dad was a pathologist. So, like many doctor’s children I enjoyed playing with tongue depressors and syringes, but in addition, I got used to seeing things like pacemakers lying around the house. We used them for paperweights.

I didn’t go into medicine as a career, although as you can imagine, after a start like that, the subject always interested me. But my main interest was language. I was the kind of kid who would read the dictionary for pleasure, and I continue to enjoy poking around in it as an adult. I work at Queen’s University in the Writing Centre, and we had one of those old multi-volume Oxford sets there in one of the offices. One day while waiting for my next appointment, I was leafing through the dictionary and this leapt out at me:


1). the science or study of disease; that department of medical science or of physiology which treats of the causes and nature of diseases, or abnormal bodily affections or conditions.

2). The study of morbid or abnormal mental or moral conditions.

3). The study of the passions or emotions.

That definition gave birth to this book.

The subtitle is “A Life in Essays” and from the title and the definition you can probably gather that the aspects of my life I’ve chosen to highlight are the messier ones. So there are essays written from the perspective of a child in a more or less normally dysfunctional family, and essays about parenting – in my case, as an adoptive parent – and these are written from an adult’s perspective. There are essays about being a teenager, and essays about working with teens as an adult. There are essays about illness, and essays about emotional turmoil – mine and others.’ The effect is a bit like a book of linked stories, except the stories I’m telling come from my own life. So it’s a memoir, but a fragmented memoir rather than a continuous, chronological narrative.

Some people, when they hear the word “essay,” think immediately about a horrible constraining five-paragraph school assignment. Essays aren’t often written as literature in Canada, (or if they are, they aren’t published, and certainly not in book form, and certainly not by new writers), but of course the genre has a long and venerable history, and it continues to be very popular in the US, as evidenced by the annual Best American Essays put out by Houghton Mifflin. (Adam Gopnick the editor of the current version.) As a writer, I love the essay because it demands great economy yet permits almost free rein in terms of subject matter and treatment. It’s an amazingly adaptable and capacious genre, and perhaps more than any other, it invites and even demands a high degree of self-reflexivity from the writer.

This book was about twelve years in the making. When I started out, I wasn’t at all sure what I was doing, but quite early on I realized that it wasn’t fiction. The plot was not about “what happened.” The plot was about coming to understand what happened in a different way. Memoir and the personal essay are not so much about “the facts” – whatever those are – but about making sense of the past. They are about finding connections between the seemingly inconsequential moments that stubbornly stick in our minds and surface when we least expect it. And they are also, always, about identity. They are attempts to answer the Socratic dictum: Know Thyself.

But of course, here’s where it gets tricky. Because we can’t know ourselves in isolation from others, and so in trying to figure out the patterns in my own life, I inevitably got tangled up in the lives of others. And in this book I have written very openly about some of the people in my life. This is the kind of writing that critics characterize as “brave” or “confessional” or “way out there” depending on their point of view; my own sense is that my family members are the brave ones, not me. It’s one thing to expose yourself. You get to determine how much you’re going to reveal and when. But it’s another thing to expose someone else, to pull the curtain back during the middle of their annual physical. (This actually happened once to me – I’ll have to remember to write about it some day!)

When I finished the first essay in the book, I showed it to two friends. One is a psychiatrist, and the other is a writer. Both of them read it. The psychiatrist friend said, “Wow, that’s terrific. But of course you can’t publish it.” The writer friend said, “Wow, that’s terrific. Of course you must publish it!”

So this was my dilemma. And the thing is, I’m a writer, not a psychiatrist. So of course I published.

I did take precautions. First of all, for years I published only in literary journals, which hardly anyone reads. But in some of the essays, I also changed names and changed or left out identifying details. Sometimes I asked family members to read a piece before I published it. In one case, I asked permission. My family has been accepting and even supportive, which says a great deal for them, because I’ve explicitly emphasized the less than rosy moments. I could, some day, write another book called, maybe, Felicities. It would have a entirely different narrative arc – and it would paint an equally true but differently true picture of my experience.

In the process of working on this book, I thought a lot about the ethics of writing about others. Many people talk about the author’s motivation in these situations. Is the motivation revenge, or something more honourable? I think that’s important, but I also think it is only part of the issue. In writing about others, I believe we have an obligation to consider not just the feelings that motivate us, but also, the degree to which our subjects might be vulnerable. And sometimes their level of vulnerablilty isn’t self-evident. For example –some might claim – in fact, some did claim – that it was wrong for me to write about my young daughter. But people who actually know her were a lot less quick to jump to that conclusion. For one thing, she happens to be an extremely articulate, verbally precocious child who looks as if she will write rings around most people, including me – and if she decides one day to tell her version, I have no doubt that she will be able to do that.

In the end, I don’t think there are any easy or universally applicable answers, and in writing about others, we are always taking risks. So many of the essays in this book address those risks, either implicitly or directly. One of the ways I address them is through braided narratives, stories that offer a sort of ironic counterpoint to the main narrative. Another way is through quotations from extra-literary sources, like a medical textbook or the dictionary. I also make use of juxtaposition and white space, which I hope invite the reader to pause and call up her own memories and thoughts. The point of all these devices, for me, is to move the story beyond anger or self-pity, towards compassion and understanding, and beyond a single voice or a single story (my own) towards a sort of polyphonic effect. I want to embody the idea that other perspectives might be brought to bear on this same material. Not everyone would see it or say it the same way.

If memoirists have an obligation to the people we write about, I think we also have an obligation to the material, to our stories. Because after all, even though our stories might involve other people, they are, primarily, ours. Many memoirs are coming-of-age stories, or trauma stories of one kind or another; mine is no exception. These are the oldest themes in literature, but they never go stale, because well-told, they offer witness and testimony to the traumas, large and small, that shape each life. And even in this age of self-exposure, I think we still need literary memoirs and personal essays, because more than any other genre they model a way of making sense of our messy existence. Literary memoir and essays mine the past for its patterns, and, as Sven Birkerts puts it, “To read the life of another person put before us in this way is inevitably to repossess something of ourselves.” It doesn’t matter that the circumstances of your life may be very different from the author’s. For it is the structural elements of the work, its careful balancing of narrative perspectives, that stimulates your recognition of the patterns in your own life and awakens you to their deeper meaning. The American writer David Shields says that one of the best things anybody ever said about his work was, “It’s all about you…but somehow, it’s not about you. How can that be?” That’s the effect I’m after in my work, too. I hope that my self-revelations will lead to readers’ self-discoveries.

So there’s a sort of therapeutic benefit to be derived from reading a good memoir or personal essay. There is also a special aesthetic value. The memoir and essay are often criticised as self-indulgent. Adam Gopnick argues that, on the contrary, they are the least self-indulgent of genres. You don’t get Brownie points for a lyrical descriptive passage that goes nowhere (as we find in some novels), or language apparently used for its own sake (as in certain poetry). If your reader can’t connect to the emotions in a memoir or an essay, if there’s no humour or pathos, if the ideas are banal or poorly expressed, or if the language is stale and flat, she will quickly put it down. Samuel Johnson (an essayist himself) said that the only legitimate reasons to write were to “help us enjoy life more, or endure it better.” The reader of an essay or a memoir needs to feel that one or both of those experiences await her in the book or she won’t continue reading. So the charge of self-indulgence really doesn’t hold a lot of weight. I think it is usually levelled by people who haven’t read very many literary essays or memoirs (as opposed to to the celebrity ghost-written kind), or by people who are afraid or perhaps too lazy to do the work of self-reflection that a personal essay or a memoir demands. In other words, when I hear someone dismiss memoirists as navel-gazers, I wonder about the lint in his belly button.

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