Super Lawyers
William C. Altreuter

Friday, July 31, 2015

Here's something that I don't think has happened to me before: I am a character in a letter to an advice column.  In Through the Looking Glass Tweedledum and Tweedledee tell Alice that she is just a character in the Red King's dream, and will disappear when he wakes up. I feel kind of like that.

When EGA got sick I wanted to write about it, but for the most part I felt as though the effect of her illness on me was dwarfed by the magnitude of what she was experiencing. It felt solipsistic to write about my experience as though its importance was anything like as significant as hers, so I mostly didn't. Appropriation is a tricky thing. At the City of Night event in the Old First Ward  for example, great care was taken to solicit and engage the people in the neighborhood. We did not want it to be a bunch of outsiders rolling in and saying, "Well, isn't this shabbiness chic, now that we have discovered it." We wanted to celebrate the place,  which is an important piece of Buffalo's DNA, if you will. Even so, someone used the hashtage #NewFirstWard and a number of people were really offended. That act --  a verbal act, an act of labeling, was a sort of cultural imperialism akin to explorers from Europe claiming to have discovered two continents that had been there all along.

So too Joyce Maynard, who was her own character when she wrote "An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back at Life", but soon enough appropriated J.D. Salinger-- arguably the most private man in America at the time, and then, in her voracious appetite for narrative, appropriated the stories of her daughter, and pretty much everyone else she came into contact with. Maynard is an extreme example, because she seldom bothered with pretending that what she was writing was fiction, but I worry about taking things that are properly other peoples' experiences and presenting them as my own work. It seems to me that there is an existential peril involved: If I appropriate your story. If, as I believe, our lives are a narrative, then what remains of my narrative when I appropriate your story and present it as my own? (Of course what this means in part is that I believe the actual 'work' is the living of the life rather than the reporting of it. That's a slightly different discussion.)

Lillian Hellman was accused of this, you may recall. In her memoir "Pentimento", (which was made into the movie, "Julia", is said to have appropriated an episode of Muriel Gardiner's life as an antifascist activist in Vienna. Hellman denied it, and when Mary McCarthy called her out on it, ("Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the') Hellman sued the hell out of McCarthy. Obviously Maynard and Hellman-- who are both kinds of monsters to me-- are extreme examples, but in my writing I endeavor to stay as close to the meat that clings to my bones as I possibly can. Perhaps this is a mistake. Maybe what I should be doing is using other peoples' material in order to explore issues and ideas that are larger than, or just different than my own. Since I seldom feel as though my own story is more than merely anecdotage maybe what I have done to myself to to trap my writing in between the banks of an impossible to navigate river. Can't write about other people, won't write honestly about myself. That is a possibility, and I won't pretend that it isn't a concern.

But that's not really what is peculiar about the experience of seeing an anecdote in which I am a character (a vaguely comic character at that) in print. What that seems to be about is a concern on my part, rooted in vanity of course, is that in this anecdote what I believe to be my complexity, my dimensionality, is lost. I have become, somehow, the father in Clueless-- a supporting character in someone else's movie. It is strangely jarring to find myself recognizing that character, and then realizing that I recognize him because he is me, like staring at a stranger across the room in a bar, and then realizing that I am looking in a mirror.

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