Once, during an interview about writing, I was asked what is “sacred” in my house.
“Books,” I answered without even a second’s thought. “Books were sacred objects in the house I grew up in, and they are sacred objects in the house I’ve made for my children. Literature is my house of worship.”
In early July, my family and I visited the Laura Ingalls Wilder homestead in De Smet, South Dakota. In the throbbing humidity of the summer prairie, we wilting Pacific Northwesterners delighted in the Ingalls’s barn, a reconstruction of Ma’s garden, and a ride in Pa’s horse-drawn wagon. My son thrilled at the presence of real, live kittens nestled in the hay of the cow’s stall. My daughter bought a cotton bonnet “just like Laura’s”. My husband and I (both products of Lutheran childhoods) sat filled with a strange but welcome sense of familiarity in the little Lutheran church at the end of the homestead’s dirt road.
A few days later, we followed up our first literary tourism experience with a second: a visit to the Willa Cather Museum in Red Cloud, Nebraska. Cather has long been one of my literary heroines, and it was pretty much a dream come true for me to tour the museum and to then be given (in a major stroke of luck) a private tour of her childhood home. I marveled at the original wallpaper of Cather’s attic garret, the narrow bed on which her grandmother slept in the alcove off the dining room, the family Bible (in which she changed her own birth date).
Years before, while at a writing residency in New Hampshire, I had visited Cather’s grave in Jaffrey, leaving a stone (as is the New England custom) for her (as well as one on the simpler grave marker denoting the resting place of her beloved, Edith Lewis), and I remembered as I looked at her childhood house the vaguely uncomfortable feeling I’d had at her gravesite—the feeling that I was intruding. I wondered what Cather—or Ingalls Wilder, for that matter—would think of the hoards of literary tourists who now troop through the intimate spaces of her daily life. What lines of privacy was I crossing by gawking at her personal effects, and how should I feel about that?
Immediately after my family’s Midwestern tour, I spent a week at a residency. I was pitching in as a volunteer this year, not a resident (part of my anti-Trump’s-America commitment to community advocacy and good literary citizenship), but even as a volunteer I got to enjoy so many hours of the rich conversations about writing that I’ve come to love as a component of the residency experience. Over breakfast coffee or dinner wine, I sat with the writers (all women, as it turned out) gathered for two weeks of seclusion and creative work, and we talked about craft and work-life-balance and the challenges and joys of being a woman writer. One of the topics we covered again and again was the question I’d been asking since setting foot in Cather’s bedroom: Where is the line between the private and the public in a writer’s life? And—more to the point for a living writer—what material is fair-game for the page, and what should remain off limits if you wish to maintain privacy for yourself and your loved ones?
One of the writers at the residency quoted the well-known author Anne Lamott on this subject: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” It’s a good line, to be sure. Still, I don’t know that I agree with it.
Someone I know recently wrote the following quote on his Facebook page, and it caught my attention: “Writers are liars, my dear, surely you know that by now? And yet, things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot” (Neil Gaiman, Dream Country).
In touring Cather’s hometown, driving the streets of Red Cloud and looking at the preserved homes of her neighbors, I wondered about how the real inhabitants of those houses felt about their fictional counterparts. Remember Wick Cutter, the lecherous and greedy would-be rapist from Cather’s My Ántonia? His house is under construction now. When my family and I pulled up to the curb in front of it, I didn’t get out as I had at the other marked sites in town. I remembered too vividly the scene from the novel, in which Jim—ignorantly standing in for Ántonia, who knows that sleeping alone in that house is dangerous, is awakened in the night to the groping hands of Wick Cutter fondling him beneath the bed sheets. When Wick realizes it is Jim he’s found in bed rather than Ántonia, he’s humiliated and angry. There’s a dark undercurrent of homophobic rage to the scene when Wick beats Jim violently, then throws him out of the house, mortified and bruised and shocked out of his sexual naiveté. It’s a dark moment in the novel. Maybe the darkest moment in the novel, and I found it draped like a shadow over my in-person experience of the Cutter house.
But what do I really know about the actual man who lived in that house—the man who was Cather’s inspiration for her character? What do I know about his personality or his impulses, his fears or choices? By all accounts, the man was indeed the womanizer and abuser Cather portrayed in her novel, but I still cannot help feeling uncomfortable with the ways I have filled in the gaps of my factual knowledge with the fictional narrative. I cannot sit well with my readerly judgment of a real person’s life.
The opposite is true for me when I consider Ingalls Wilder’s writing. The book Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography of Laura Ingalls Wilder was released a couple of years ago, and it quickly made literary news for its revelations about the aspects of prairie life that Ingalls Wilder left out of her Little House books. The books, of course, were intended for younger readers, and therefore Ingalls Wilder took creative liberties with her story, leaving out or softening many of the darker or more “adult” realities. Was this dishonesty? some readers seemed to question when Pioneer Girl came out. What did readers lose in getting the rosy picture Ingalls Wilder offered in her books? And were those people and situations she altered in her writing worth protecting?
Let me pause here and clarify something essential: I’m not arguing about the line between fiction and nonfiction. That’s an argument for another day (or not at all, as far as I’m concerned… leave it to the book marketers and the shelves of Barnes and Noble, as long as they last). I’m interested here only in truth-telling (or truth-bending) as far as it concerns the writer’s own practice and personal life. I’m interested in asking myself as a writer what my conscience will allow me to make into art, and what (if anything) I consider sacrosanct?
This week my son will turn eleven. I’ve written extensively about him in the past. His birth has appeared in one guise another in both my fiction and my essays. I wrote a poem about the first words he spoke. I’ve turned the challenges of mothering him into fiction that is at turns loving, frustrated, weary, overjoyed. But he’s entering a new and more aware stage in his own consciousness now. He’s nearly adolescent, and he’s beginning to define for himself his own boundaries around the private and the public. He recently stopped a conversation mid-sentence to say, “Mom, you won’t tell anyone about this, will you?” No, I promised him—I wouldn’t betray his confidence. But the question itself came with a sting.
I most definitely do not own his stories—just like I don’t own my daughter’s or my husband’s or my parents’ stories either. Though at times the experiences of our shared family life feel very much like they belong to me, I have to remember that writing these experiences makes them public, and that in opening our lives up to a reader (even when I cloak the story in fiction) I run the risk of betraying the people I love, of draining our lives of the sacred intimacy that binds us.
Still, I go on writing more or less whatever I want to write. I go on telling myself that as a fiction writer I’m protected and protecting.
The more I go on here, the more I see I’ve been dishonest with myself. Like all writers, it turns out, I am truth-telling liar.
For Christmas last year, I asked for and was gifted the recently published book The Selected Letters of Willa Cather. I knew before requesting this book that Cather probably would not have condoned its publication. She is known to have burned (or demanded that others burn) most of her correspondence. Nevertheless, I wanted the book. I wanted to get a little closer to the life and mind of a writer whose fiction has so shaped my own life and mind, and I didn’t think it was such a trespass to read her surviving letters—especially because I would be reading them with the affectionate eyes of a devoted fan.
Then I came across this note from the book’s editors:
The concerns that we believe motivated her to assert her preference are no longer valid. Cather’s reputation is now as secure as artistic reputations can ever be, and her works will continue to speak for themselves. These lively, illuminating letters will do nothing to damage her reputation. Instead, we can see from our twenty-first-century perspective that her letters heighten our sense of her complex personality, provide insights into her methods and artistic choices as she worked, and reveal Cather herself to be a complicated, funny, brilliant, flinty, sensitive, sometimes confounding human being. Such an identity is far more satisfying—and more honest—than that of a ‘pure’ artist, unmoved by commercial motivations, who devoted herself strictly to her creations and nothing else.
I cannot read this without squirming at its assumption that what Cather meant to protect—what she felt was most sacred—was her reputation, and not simply her privacy. Since reading this, I have put my book of her letters on a low shelf and have not opened it again.
When my family left the Ingalls Wilder Homestead, we drove the dirt road from there to West Bethany Lutheran Church, a turn-of-the-century white chapel just beyond the homestead’s boundaries. It smelled of old wood and extinguished candle smoke. Its floor creaked as we walked in and found our seats in empty pews, my husband and I at the back of the church, our children nearer the altar. In my pew, I found an old red hymnal. Lutherans will know what I mean when I say “red hymnal.” The Lutheran church has marked their hymnal revisions over the years with different colored covers. This one was released in 1941, but I had seen it before in the churches of my childhood, and opening it was like opening the door to a childhood home. The thin pages crinkled just as I remembered. I traced my fingers over the words of the familiar liturgies and songs and felt a pang.
I haven’t written about my relatively recent split from the church and the faith of my childhood. Why? I wondered as I sat in that pew. But I didn’t really need to ask; I knew. There is a handful—a small handful, I admit—of experiences from my personal life that I have never written about, and perhaps I never will. They are too tender to put on the page. They are too intimate or painful or both. Too sacred. And writing about them, I know, would be (for me) a violation of my own emotional boundaries.
There’s a moment in Cather’s My Ántonia when her narrator, Jim, is lying on his back in his grandmother’s garden. He can feel the heat of the dirt under him, the sun over him. He says, “that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great”, by which he means to be made aware of one’s ‘oneness’ with the larger world.
This, I think, is what literature can do for us, too—allow for a dissolution of the self into the bigger story. But we need the willing truth-tellers to write that bigger story. We need the artists of the world to make art in which we can see ourselves and our experiences reflected, expanded, made new. We need artists who will break and remake their own hearts publicly so that, in our own private hearts, we can understand the brokenness and mending that is the work of being human. There’s bravery there, I mean to say, despite the cost.
I’m not entirely sure where my meanderings here are leaving me. I want to make an argument for moral relativism in reading and writing.
Years ago, my daughter’s preschool teachers used to ask her to consider herself and others before making decisions. Should she climb that high in the cedar tree? Well, would she hurt herself if she did it? Would she hurt anybody else? If both answers were ‘no’, she was free to ascend into the cedar’s damp, green boughs.
Maybe this should be my question when I set out to write from life now: Will I hurt myself in doing so? Will I hurt anyone I love?
But, of course, I already do ask those questions, and sometimes they’re just too simplistic. Adult life requires pain now and then—our own and others’. Art requires nakedness sometimes—our own and others’. The difficult part is knowing how much pain is too much, how much nakedness is too exposing. And—even if the line is crossed—is there forgiveness on the other side? What will be left after I’ve broken everybody’s heart? Emptiness? Beauty? What—in other words—am I willing to gamble and lose?
On our way back home from the Midwest, we spent many quiet hours in the car. During one of these, I looked over my shoulder, expecting to find both my son and daughter napping in the back seat. My seven-year-old daughter was awake, though, her black-and-white composition notebook opened over her lap, her colored marker hard at work on the page.
“What are you drawing?” I asked.
She looked up, her expression one I recognized from my own experience—the same look I give her when she pulls me, suddenly, out from inside my own interior world. “I’m not drawing,” she said. “I’m writing. I’m writing about our trip.”
I craned to try to see her page, but she closed the book. “It’s for me to see,” she said. “Just me.”
“Okay,” I told her, but my curiosity was keen. What was she writing? I wondered. I wanted to see through her window, to get a peek into her vision of our trip, our day, our family. “Are you sure?” I asked again.
“Yep.” She smiled, dropped her gaze once more to her page.
I nodded. She could set her own boundaries, I reminded myself, and I would respect them.
Home again this week, I went to my shelf of Cather’s books. I wanted to read the familiar words with the new insights of my trip still close in my mind—and, I think, I wanted Cather’s guidance about how to live as a writer. In her novel about the creative life, The Song of the Lark, I found this: “What was any art but a mold in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself—life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose.”
I read it out loud. How should I take it? What was she telling me? I wanted to rip apart Cather’s words, examine them, understand.
And so I opened my computer, and I started writing.