I'm still thinking about some comments made by Rachel Cusk in the Guardian some weeks ago in a review of Joan Didion's recent memoir, Blue Nights (which is about the death of her daughter). I can't sort my thoughts out about this, but they are circling around ideas about particularity and universality/generality.
Assumptions about these ideas were central to my work with complexity theory in the context of educational research. They have come up again for me in recent months in relation to creativity, particularly after the Authentic Artist workshop, when I remember Kath Burlinson continually correcting someone who tended to talk in general terms. '...You know when you see a person and they...' the workshop participant would say, and Kath would respond with, 'No, I don't, and you don't either! You don't know about anything except your own experience. Talk from that!'. The person would then reframe what they were saying, and they immediately sounded more grounded and confident. This came up again with someone else, who said, 'You'll probably think that this only took me ten minutes to write, but actually.....'. 'You have no idea', Kath said, 'What we think, at all! Tell us what you think, or what you did...' (apologies, Kath, for inaccurate paraphrasing!).
Aspects of this focus on the particular, on only what can be known from our own direct experience, came up at different times during the three days. I remember it particularly in relation to thinking about self-consciousness; the critic in our heads who constantly worries about what others will think of us; and how crippling the preoccupation with the judgements of others usually is for creativity (again, Kath, if you read this, please correct anything in a response to this post!).
Kath, and Paul Oertel, at least as I understand what they might be doing, seem to be suggesting the possibility of release into a deeper way of being; a place to operate from within ourselves which can be known only by letting go of the preoccupation with how we appear to others. Paradoxically, once this place is found and known, it turns out to be the opposite of 'self-centredness' or ego. I see it as a place where the smallness of the ego seems to more or less disappear, as it becomes absorbed into a sensation of self which knows itself differently, more intuitively; as a biological being connected inside and out to the larger ecology of which it is a part.
So bearing all this in mind, I'm perplexed about the following ideas in this book review:
Some of the best literary memoirs.... describe the author's survival of extreme or extraordinary circumstances. Others... document the effects on the author of events (in this case, the death of a spouse) which, though difficult to bear, are universal and ordinary. The former might be said to be turning chaos into order, transforming or redeeming chaotic experience with the orderliness of the author's prose and the rational mind from which it issues; the latter begin with the proposition of order and proceed, through the honesty of their writing, to challenge and disrupt it.
This is a delicate and difficult undertaking, for obvious reasons. To personalise common experiences is to assert a version of them with which others might not agree. The memoirist, while placing an unusual degree of trust in the reader, is also exposing herself to their judgement. She hopes to speak for everyone; she risks being ridiculed for speaking only for herself (my italics).
I'm a bit perplexed that the death of a spouse can be described as 'universal and ordinary', but perhaps the reviewer is talking about this when she says that the memoirist can disrupt this idea. What, though, is '... honesty of ...writing' if, when writing, the author is thinking about 'the risk of being ridiculed'? Is it possible to write honestly whilst holding the fear of this risk in your mind? This is new territory for me. I don't know about writing, or the critique of writing. But the thing that really stands out for me in this passage is 'she hopes to speak for everyone'. This seems to be the complete opposite of the Authentic Artist/Martha Graham idea of opening; of 'getting out of one's own way', of detaching from ego and fear, in order to make space for a direct creative response from an unselfconscious place.
The unselfconscious place surely transcends the smallness of ego-preoccupation, and as I understand this at the moment, I can't see that it would concern itself with trying to 'speak for everyone'. Whether or not someone in the audience finds a place to connect with the creative response seems to me to be quite beyond the control, or intention, of the person who is offering up their response. I would imagine that the last thing on their mind would be whether or not they're speaking for others, or indeed whether or not the critics will like them or ridicule them.
I've struggled to write this post. Not sure that I've got my thoughts clear at all. But there's something here that seems interesting...