Watched Hubert Selby Jr: It/ll Be Better Tomorrow last night. His last words were a list:

A list of indignities

  • Birth
  • Death

Most writing begins with autobiography. The craft involves placing one word after another, and one’s self as a topic is always close at hand. Free-association aside, writing involves communicating something to someone and it’s easier to communicate something you have knowledge of. Before taking Chuck Anderson’s class, I hadn’t given a lot of thought to how we lie to ourselves and each other when reconstructing events. Birth and death are great examples: without the buffer of fictionalizing these experiences, they might be too much to bear. Trauma is never far away from our memories. Trauma is how we learn.

Of course, one could make the argument that we are guided by pleasure as much as pain. We learn that lying in the sun is pleasant, that certain foods or behaviors make us feel good, etc. but these things lack the persistence of memory found in the unpleasant. We dwell (with good reason) on what we don’t want to happen again more than what we wish to repeat. Pleasures, when repeated, are often diminished and loose their luster. Pain shines through in the quiet moments when we don’t have much else to occupy our consciousness.1 Most sane people would not chose pain; it chooses us. So we narrate painful memories from a position outside them.

Autobiographical writing, then, is largely a subset of fiction writing. It’s frequently pathetic and not particularly interesting to read unless the writer has a talent for embellishment that isn’t eclipsed by the inclination to whine. When I was teaching writing, it seemed like the hardest task was to get people to get past the fiction— to quit whinging (and wanking) and write something of real world consequence. While it is certainly true that autobiographical writing is of great consequence to the writer, it’s circle of influence seldom stretches beyond personal rationalizations of the indignities of life. We write about what we know for an audience that we know cares: ourselves. Rationalization is essential, because otherwise what we label as experience is meaningless.

Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn was one of the few books that I couldn’t read without putting down, over and over again. The scenes that unfolded were too much to bear. But I suspect that was part of the game he was playing with himself: testing just how far he could push language into the indescribable, into the sublime. Over and over people in the film remarked what a “regular” a guy he was in person. His books are literature, not autobiography, though I have no doubt that parts of them began in experience. He pushed them the other way down the axis closer to irationalization. His friends spoke of his books as redemptive; I never found redemption. The universe is dark in there.

(1) I had a dentist once who explained it this way: During the day there are a lot of distractions that keep you from thinking about your pain. In the middle of the night is when the toothache really hits you, and becomes unbearably severe. You can’t sleep because the quieter you become, the more intense the pain is.