A Response to Bob Lucky’s “The Haibun as Essay”
“. . . (the) memoir, for much of its modern history, has been the black sheep of the literary family. . .”
~ Daniel Mendelsohn
Lucky’s article “The Haibun as Essay” explores some ways of thinking about the “what is it?” of haibun that aren’t often addressed. For example, he starts with:
“Haibun for me is a subgenre of history in that it can be traced all the way up the line through memoir, travel accounts, autobiography, and biography . . .”
Indeed, most the haibun appearing in our journals by a great variety of writers are what can be called short memoirs, snippets of lived life. They are roughly an even mix of real-life accounts of long-past events (childhood, teen years, young adulthood) and of recent experiences: e.g., travel, friends and family, nature walks, the joys and stresses of urban life, even reactions to “the news” and “fake news.” And it’s no surprise that the first three haibun appearing in our present issue are short memoirs about events long past.
In his essay, “Retrospective Haibun, or Why I Love the Past,” Richard Straw explains the urge to write haibun memoirs about the past:
“I’m a writer with strong nostalgic longings. . . . I titled my first collection of haibun The Longest Time because the past is the time that I've lived in and think about the most. The present is so fleeting it's almost nonexistent, and the future of course is unknown.”
Memoir writing necessarily involves memory, whether it’s about current events in our present lives, or, as with Straw’s works, about distant events.
With respect to memory, a second comment that particularly caught my attention in Lucky’s piece was a quote from Carter’s haibun “In the Crowd.” Carter is quoted as writing:
“. . . all forms of memory are masochistic.”
This surprised me, particularly for its universality, “all forms,” not just “some forms.” My sense of “masochistic” is that it carries negative connotations. So is Carter saying that most of my writing (and much of our writers’ works) about memories of recent or long past events is masochistic? I double-checked my sense of the word “masochistic” and found:
- deriving gratification from one's own pain or humiliation.
- enjoying an activity that appears to be painful or tedious.
Of course, not all forms of memoir are about negative events in life, about pain, humiliation. Many memoir writers focus at least some of their work on good times with family and friends and positive events their lives.
However, as Lucky suggests:
“The masochism lies in the awareness of lost memories.”
In short, even a memory of a good time involves a sense of loss. It is true for me that after leaving a wilderness camp where I’d had good times hiking with friends and sharing poetry and our lives around the campfire, I experience a sense of loss as everyone departs for home. And whenever I hike in wilderness, friends not present come to mind, and I experience a similar sense of loss. Are those memories a form of masochism? Am I deriving some sort of perverse pleasure by sharing them in writing? Hmmmm.
Many memoirs employ humor, a making light of both painful and happy events. However, humor is often self-deprecating and so might it too be construed as a form of self-flagellation.
These ideas fit with the labelling of the memoir form in literature and poetry as “confessional” – a pejorative with the sense that it’s not a good idea airing one’s laundry in public in our books and journals, those being the clotheslines in our front yards, our undergarments hanging for all to see. Examples given in the negative critiques of confessional works are marriage break-ups, a child’s or one’s own alcohol or drug or food or sexual addictions, sexual transgressions . . . the list goes on. Probably it includes most of what one would find in the Bible’s Ten Commandments.
This line of literary criticism of confessional works has led to a significant amount of conjecture about the motives for writing them. As Blake Morrison put it:
“… what makes some writers confess their most painful secrets? Are they just narcissistic or is theirs a noble quest for truth?”
The literature suggests a number of possible motives for writing confessional pieces and I think it may be worthwhile for writers to consider them in light of their own work and motives. Among them are:
1. Spontaneity: Such writing is related to an overflow of powerful feelings, like a tea kettle pouring out its steam, as in: “I couldn’t help it, it just came out of me, unexpurgated, because the experiences I had were so much in the forefront.”
2. Self-Justification: Confessionalism also sometimes may serve the writer as self-justification, a bid for recognition for true-to-life writing, warts and all. Owning up to problems, faults and misdeeds, is a way to share the real human life. And is that really a bad thing to do? Do we want friends who don’t accept the entire package called “me?”
3. Shock: Confession may stem from a desire to shock – akin to the intended shock (and prurient interest) of tabloid headlines. In the case of the tabloids, it’s a way to sell papers, attract readers to blogs. Writers bent on sensationalism are exaggerating, even inventing, thus moving the supposed haibun memoir into the realm of fiction.
4. Exposure of Society’s Faults: This motive impulse is a desire to expose the hypocrisy and shallowness of polite society. In short, here’s what I (and humans) are really like, my hidden self, my wrong deeds. And this is what you, reader hypocrite, are also like. If we own up to our foibles, we can live healthier lives.
5. A First Step: Confessionalism is a journey into self-awareness and possibly the first step into positive change. This is akin to AA’s first step which is to publicly say, “Hello, I’m Joe and I’m an alcoholic.” And in so doing, the public confessor can move on to the next steps which involve resisting his or her addictive impulses. And what better forum for that First Step than a public forum, like a journal where our confessions are available for anyone to see, family, friends, strangers.
6. Family Secrets: Some memoirs set out to expose the secrets of a previous generation, on the grounds that those lies and secrets – about things such as illegitimacy or mental illness – are no longer a source of shame and hiding, but more acceptable and understandable, and worth attending to rather than hiding away.
7. Challenge: Another motive might be called confession as a challenge: “Look at what I’ve done and be the first to cast a stone if you are guiltless.”
8. Truth-Telling: Yet another has the primary motive as setting the record straight, to bear witness. Journalism is an example, reporting from the frontline or recounting first-hand, from personal experience, what it is like to be in a war, say, or a prison or in a street demonstration with violence and tear-gassing. We don’t tend to attach the word “confessional” to this kind of memoir when the subject is about historical and political events, rather than personal family history. The intimacy of the witnessing often is confessional, and that is what sets it apart.
9. Therapy: Another motive sees confession as catharsis, cleansing, or purgation. Something bad has happened, and putting it in writing, or putting it out there in the world, is a way of feeling better about it. As Shakespeare put it in Malcolm’s advice to Ross:
“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er-frought heart and bids it break.” ~ Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 3.
10. Helping: Whether self-cathartic or not, revealing issues can help others come to grips with similar difficulties. In self-help groups, when someone “reveals” or “confesses” his or her issues, it can be of help to others facing the same issues. A cancer survivor’s haibun might be of great value to others
who contract cancer.
Perhaps these issues and the examination of motives constitute “much ado about nothing” or are akin to considering that reductio ad absurdum challenge, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” On the other hand, the comment said to have been uttered by Socrates that “The unexamined life is not worth living” might be extended to examining one's style, subject matter and motives for writing.