THE RELUCTANT EXHIBITIONIST

by Gar Anthony Haywood

When I was just a wee lad, fully expecting to become a published author before my eighteenth birthday (I was only off by about a decade), I used to do all my writing in my mother’s kitchen.  I’d set my Smith-Corona electric up on the counter, plug that bad boy in, and hammer away at one sci-fi short story after another, working as my mother toiled over a hot stove making breakfast, lunch or dinner for a family of five.  I don’t know how either of us ever got anything accomplished, but we managed to co-exist in that little kitchen quite nicely, even if her cooking was always exceptional and my writing uniformly unpublishable.

Every now and then, however, Barbara Jean Haywood would break the unspoken peace accord we’d reached to evict me from the room, the meal of the moment requiring more uncluttered counter space than my typewriter and scattered manuscript pages would allow.  On these occasions I’d grudgingly move to the dining room, where the light and ambiance were nowhere near as conducive to my flow, and issue a dire warning:

“One day,” I’d tell my mother, “I’m going to be a famous author. And when I’m asked if my parents encouraged me to write, I’m going to tell people how you used to throw me and my typewriter out of the kitchen every time I tried.”

We both used to get a big kick out of that.

I never made good on my threat, of course.  In her own way, before she passed eighteen years ago, my mother was just as responsible for my becoming a published author as my father (more on him at a later date), and I will always be thankful I had such an incredible woman in my life.  Still, for all her pride in my work, my mother never quite understood my fascination with genre, and in fact pestered me constantly to write non-fiction instead.  Specifically, she wanted me to write about our family.  Its highs, its lows, its ugly warts.

I had zero interest.

First, because I was always certain there was no “there” there.  Contrary to what my mother thought, the trials and tribulations of the Haywood clan, even extended out to our Lugo/Bordenave cousins, would not have made for much more than a mildly amusing read.  We had our moments of high drama and hilarity, sure, but for the most part — and I feel incredibly blessed to be able to say this — much of the heart-rending tragedy that most bestselling family sagas are made of — sudden death, serious illness, financial hardship — was absent from our lives.  None of us were famous or wealthy, or particularly inclined toward a life of crime.  In short, we were a multi-cultural Brady Bunch with an edge, and it was beyond me how any author could make an engrossing book out of that.

Second, writing was a release for me, a way to escape my somewhat sheltered and — if not exactly unhappy — occasionally uncomfortable existence, and it could only serve that purpose if I was writing fiction.  Stories of my own invention whose outcome was entirely within my control.

My third and primary disincentive for writing about me and mine, however, was that I didn’t want to air our dirty laundry — no matter how innocuous it may have seemed by most standards — in public.

And that’s the whole point of a good autobiography, isn’t it?  Telling all the stories about yourself and the people you care about that most reveal your greatest strengths and weaknesses?  Your brightest and darkest hours?  All the good stuff alone won’t do; you’ve got to offer up the dirt, too.  The lies and betrayals; the extra-marital affairs and disastrous, bumbling, humiliating mistakes.  The promises broken and dark secrets kept.  And last but not least, the author’s true, inner-most feelings about it all, regardless of who might get hurt in the revealing.

No thanks, Mom, I thought.  I’ll pass.

So that whole “keeping a journal” thing we writers are supposed to do?  I never bothered with it.  I always found the concept rather self-indulgent: “My thoughts and life experiences are so extraordinary, I must write them down for posterity.”  I understood the value of keeping a journal as a technical exercise; any activity that requires one to write every day can’t be bad.  But self-reflection?  Who needed it?  Growing up, my focus was rarely if ever on what was real; it was instead on what could be.  The worlds and people I could create to do my own bidding.  Why waste time writing about an actual, ordinary day when you could write about a fictional, exciting one instead?

(I must admit that I was clueless about the therapeutic potential of keeping a journal, which obviously cannot be denied.  In the absence of a good therapist — and I’ve been lucky enough to know a few — writing a daily journal requires a level of introspection that can sometimes be as curative as it is revelatory.)

Needless to say, since those early days in my mother’s kitchen, I’ve learned to better appreciate stories taken from real people’s lives, and the incredible courage it often takes to write them.  History was never my favorite subject in school — in what possible way could things that happened to others in years past be relevant to my present or future? — but as most adults eventually do, I’ve come to understand history’s import and, yes, its myriad connections to my own existence.  I’ve even come around to reading — and thoroughly enjoying — a history tome or two.

And yet the business of writing about my private life, aside from those experiences that relate to my writing, remains a difficult chore for me, and I continue to wonder why anyone should care to read about it.  The theory behind social networking as a marketing tool is that the more readers know about you as a person, the more curious they’re likely to be about what you write, but I remain unconvinced that this is true.  I think what really breeds such curiosity is not the baring of an author’s soul, but a consistent production of smart/funny/thought-provoking material via every platform one decides to take advantage of.   What you choose to write about is almost irrelevant.

Certainly, establishing one’s credentials as a decent, compassionate human being who’s suffered pain and loss like all the rest of us can’t hurt an author’s chances of building a substantial readership.  Readers may not need to like the people they read but most prefer to think those people are real and not imaginary, and maybe even deserving of their patronage in some small way.  But how much personal information is enough to create that connection and how much is too much?  In order to win readers over in large numbers, is it really incumbent upon a writer to treat them like members of his most intimate family?

For instance, if I based my next Murderati post on my divorce from my first wife, delving into the depths of depression that experience put me through, while making only the slightest effort to draw a connection between it and my writing at the time, would that make you any more or less inclined to read me?   Would knowing the details of how alcohol and crack cocaine have fucked with my family over the years somehow enhance your interest in my fiction?

As a reader, it’s never worked that way for me.  I’ve always put the writing before the writer, caring very little to know the life stories of the people I read.  Lawrence Block, Martin Cruz Smith, Elmore Leonard . . .   Ask me one question about their private lives and I’d only be able to shrug.  I don’t know what injustices they’ve suffered and I don’t give a damn.  That’s their business.  What they write and how well they write it is mine.

But I fear I’m a dying breed.  In this age of Facebook and Twitter, in which sharing all you have to share with perfect strangers is rapidly becoming the whole point of the online exercise, it may no longer be enough for a reader to be simply that: a reader.  Maybe now, potential fans expect more from the reader/author contract than just a good read.  They expect — they demand — a ticket to his inner circle, as well.

For writers capable of opening their lives up to that kind of public scrutiny, at least on occasion — especially those who can do it as effortlessly and brilliantly as my fellow ‘Rati Stephen Jay Schwartz and David Corbett have in recent weeks here — lending such added value to their fiction will not be too much to ask, and they’ll reap the benefits of their candor.  But for others like me, hopeless introverts who can’t so much as crack the window onto their personal lives without feeling naked, that task will be all but impossible.

Were she here, my mother would no doubt be disappointed to see I’m as reluctant as ever to tell my family’s stories.

But I suspect she’d read my next book anyway.

Questions for the class:  For the readers among you, how much do you need to know about an author’s personal life before he or she strikes you as worthy of a read?  And authors, where do you draw the line between what you’re comfortable sharing with your readers and what you aren’t?

24 thoughts on “THE RELUCTANT EXHIBITIONIST

  1. Cornelia Read

    Great post!

    Well, I pretty much only write auto-bio. With murders, because I can't plot for shit. Though there's stuff I leave out. Mostly stuff that makes me look stupid, I guess.

    But as the op-ed piece on Wendy Wasserstein today noted a friend of hers once saying, "you were *born* into great material." My family tends to be a pretty meaty subject. Sometimes funny, mostly noir.

    Reply
  2. Gar Anthony Haywood

    Cornelia:

    Yeah, it's the stuff that makes me look dumb that I hold most close to my heart. Because depsite the expression to the contrary, when people hear about such things, they're laughing AT you, not WITH you.

    And you'd be crazy NOT to write about your family. It's just too much good stuff not to use in some way.

    Reply
  3. Sarah Pearson

    Knowing much, or nothing, about an author's personal life and/or history makes no difference to my decision as to whether I will read their fiction or not. I like to read about such things because I like to read about peoples lives, and how they deal with things but the one has no relation to the other as far as I'm concerned.

    Reply
  4. Fran

    I pondered this question of public access to private lives a few weeks ago on my own blog. In this age of oversharing on Facebook and Twitter and now Google+ if it lasts, I've found out all kinds of things about authors I would never have otherwise known. In some cases, it has intrigued me enough to want to read their work, in a few cases, I learned things I'd rather not have known but I can separate the author I'm uncomfortable with as a person from their work which I love, and in a couple of cases, I'm going to have trouble reading anything they write ever again because of my new perception of them.

    There are undoubtedly people whose lives are fascinating, but not everyone has the skill to turn that life into a readable story. I suspect that writing what you love is what makes your work good, not writing to please others.

    Reply
  5. Schwartz, Stephen Jay

    Gar – beautifully written. It's interesting, but I often become more intrigued in reading a writer when I know what it took for him or her to sustain that level of writing through the ups and downs of his or her life. Long before Facebook I was learning the histories of writers like Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck, Jack London, Katherine Ann Porter, Charles Bukowski, Jim Thompson, Walter Tevis and many others. Where one has published a diary, I've read those, too. I was just as fascinated with the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.
    I like to know how people – real people – tick. I actually have a very difficult time simply creating fictional characters off the top of my head. It just feels like play-acting and I don't get the impression that I'm doing what I came into this world to do, which is to document my adventures through it. To document what it means to live. The good and the bad, the warts and all. That said, I resist involving others in my writing. I don't want to destroy the lives of family or friends. I never liked the fact that many authors in the past have screwed over all their relations in an effort to "get a good book." And many of my favorite authors have done just that. I was recently telling an author friend about the very, very difficult experiences my family has encountered while dealing with my son's autism. He said, "But what an amazing resource to mine for your writing!" I said, "It's not my story to write."
    I might change and grow from what I experience through my son's journey, but I don't feel I have the right to exploit it. It is too personal. Not for me, but for him. So, I'll refrain from diving into it, unless he gives me permission. Of course, I could use the experiences to inform a character I'm writing, but it's too close to home – the character would become a thinly-veiled reflection of my son and/or my feelings concerning his experiences. I'd rather just leave it alone, for his sake.
    It's tricky stuff, trying to determine how much to open up about our lives. But, to me, writing anything, whether it be fiction or non-fiction, is about exploring why the fuck I'm here in this world. My story, your story, everybody's story is where it's at. Nobody has a dull story. In my opinion. Great writing is one thing. But to see where it came from is something else. It adds a different dimension. This doesn't mean hearing about the authors favorite TV shows on Twitter or Facebook. I can do without that. I want to know how they did it…how they survived this grind, and how they managed to get such good work done while doing it. To me, writing about my life experiences isn't therapy. It's about exploring the common adventure. I've never been so fulfilled as a writer as when I decided to open up. And it's not about building readership. There's nothing tactical behind it. It's about the exploration, my friend.

    Reply
  6. Louise Ure

    I say, use your history and reality to create the imaginary. And never let the reader know which is which.

    Reply
  7. PK the Bookeemonster

    I think there is a difference in what the social media does for authors and knowing personal details about an author's life. I think the majority of readers really don't care to know the personal details. Isn't there a level of association or even friendship that allows for discussion but not the need to know what I had for dinner last night or my relationships? With social media, if I like somebody's writing and I have access to more of that writing on a semi-regular basis I'm going to seek it out. Example: I often check a blog of a librarian who loves romance books. I don't read a lot of romance but I think her spin on things is funny. In "the olden days" there were columnists in newspapers who contributed to entertaining reading for the day. But for authors, blogs and other social media need to be considered as a purely marketing tool — information of the professional life, not the personal stuff.

    Reply
  8. Rae

    Brilliant post, Gar.

    Although I enjoy some of the social media that seem to drive the majority of our human interaction these days, I'm one of those luddites who think that too much 'sharing' with people you don't know is not really a good thing.

    As a reader, I think that the details of a writer's personal life are his or her business, not mine. I do care whether they present themselves well in whatever forum they choose to make an appearance. By that I don't mean that they have to be polished to a high gloss and be able to teach a Toastmasters class; I mean that they need to be well-mannered, and receptive to interacting with their fans. (You'd be surprised at how many writers go to fan conferences like Bouchercon, and then don't want to be bothered by the 'little people' – highly annoying.)

    I love to hear about the thought process behind the books I most love; that often touches on the writer's personal life and experiences. But beyond that, I don't need to know any more.

    Reply
  9. David Corbett

    I want to thank you, Gar, for this opportunity to discuss my root canal.

    I have been pressed often to write a memoir about Terri, but to do so honestly I would have to say some things about certain people that would be harsh. That includes me, but I could handle that. But do others, just by knowing a writer, surrender their right to privacy? Of course not. And I just haven't been able to get over that hump.

    I think Stephen's right, you want to know the meat of the matter. You want a writer to answer these 4 questions in everything he writes:

    Who am I?
    Where do I come from?
    Where am I going?
    What does it mean?

    But I don't care what a writer's life experiences are if that doesn't reach the page. Like you, I have no clue what many of my favorite writers' personal lives have entailed.

    And there is something unseemly about this constant preening online. Like all PR work, the element of salesmanship feels forced more often than I'd like to admit, and that's particularly true of self-confession. I do it because I have to but it becomes wearying sometimes. I feel like I'm pimping myself. I wish I could just write, but that's juvenile.

    But I'll admit, learning that story about you and your mom, the kitchen counter, the exile to the dining room — it warmed my heart a little, and intrigued me, and opened a window onto your spirit I'm glad to have. But I felt much the same way after reading CEMETERY ROAD. I told you how much I believed only a father could write that book. You do bring your private life to the page, and brilliantly, the way most fiction writers do — through your characters. And I'm grateful for that.

    Reply
  10. JT Ellison

    Very interesting. TMI isn't a problem for me. It's not a struggle for me to know where to draw the line out in the ether of the Internet. Not a struggle at all. There are authors who share thing that I literally cringe at, and some who I wish would share more. Is what it is – you meet people like that every day – the ones who within five seconds are sharing their most intimate, deepest darkest secrets (this happens to me all the time, by the way. Strangers love to tell me their stories) and those who are standoffish, who have walls up so high that just the idea of scaling them is exhausting. I don't think the level of sharing is specific to authors. Some people are interesting, some aren't, and writers are the exact same way. If they share uninteresting or offputting things, it might make readers shy away. But…. there are always people who love to see the warts. You have to find your level of comfort and stick with it. I'm with you – I don't bother trying to mine my family for stories. We are a rather boring lot.

    Reply
  11. Gar Anthony Haywood

    Stephen: I've never read one of your posts and thought, "Why do I want to know about this?" Your writing is such that I always understand a story's relevance, not just to you, but to all of us. Keep on doing what you're doing.

    PK: The librarian you mention is a perfect example of what I mean when I say the content of the material is almost irrelevant when you're reading the work of a fine writer. She makes the romance novel stuff fascinating in the way she writes about it, and that's all that matters.

    David: Your four questions are exactly the point. I couldn't have said it better myself.

    JT: I'll have to take your word for it, but I doubt very seriously that your crew is boring.

    Reply
  12. Alafair Burke

    An author's personal life really isn't relevant to my reading experience, though I do enjoy having a sense of their personality. As for my own personal life, I have learned to talk about myself with readers and to incorporate my own life in my work. I draw the line, however, at writing about my life in a way that reveals the experiences and stories of others. I would not be comfortable writing about things in my family, for example, when doing so would reveal information that other people treat as private.

    Reply
  13. Pari Noskin

    Great post, Gar. I've been struggling with the TMI aspect lately and my posts have been much more auto-bio than they have at other times in the years Murderati has been around. The one thing I can say is that I'm NOT sharing information about current circumstances to sell my books. I'm doing it because some of the issues/concepts with which I'm grappling are ones that I firmly believe other grapple with daily as well.

    I want to learn from them, if I can, to not have to recreate the wheel by chopping down the damn tree first.

    Even so, I've worked hard to be circumspect. The "Public" doesn't know the names of my children or their ages or school . . . I haven't used my husband's name either.

    As to how much I need to know about the writers I read . . .
    Well I like to know something. I have read bios, autobios and articles about my favs and have found interest, solace and confirmation in them. The only time this backfires is personal (or close to personal) experience. If a bookseller tells me an author has been an ass to store staff or reads, I'm likely not to buy that person's work again. This isn't right or wrong; I don't advocate that others respond this way.

    But I do.

    Reply
  14. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Gar

    Very interesting subject. Thought Louise's response "I say, use your history and reality to create the imaginary. And never let the reader know which is which" was inspired, though.

    Even before Twitter and Facebook – hell, even before the Internet really took off – I've been very careful what I share from a personal security point of view. There's nothing like being on the receiving end of death-threat letters to make you cautious about how much information you put out there.

    I've met writers who were very engaging and entertaining in person, but whose books were dull. I don't recall ever meeting a writer who was dull, but whose books were wonderful. Is there a moral there?

    Reply
  15. David Bishop

    Nice post. I think the point about authors and social media is an interesting one. I've deliberately tried to find some of my favourite authors on Facebook, but am always a bit disappointed when they post details of what they've had for dinner, or what movies they've been seeing. I want to hear about their writing lives – partly because I'm interested, also because it gives me some encouragement with my own writing and maybe try something new, a different technique perhaps. Totally agree with you, Gar – I don't care about your private life, but your writing is very much mine!

    Reply
  16. Reine

    Hi Gar,

    Great post! Hugely interesting.

    From a reader perspective I am most interested in knowing what the story is about. The mundane day-to-day? Heh, if it's funny or interesting on its own, as are Cornelia's blogs . . . and . . . ah . . . well that is great, but I will read her books whether or not she ever tweets, emails, facebooks, comments or blogs – ever again. However, I did discover her on The Lipstick Chronicles when she commented and blogged there. I was interested in a blog she posted here on Murderati, and I discovered several authors here I'd never been aware of. Do I care if Cornelia reveals? It depends. It is easy to feel a certain kinship with her and other writers, commenters as well, as they post here. And it does develop a certain level of interest, else why are we here? Some writers are intriguing people, but I don't expect to read all. And revealing need not be intimate to be interesting.

    From a writer perspective, the mundane can be hugely interesting. I've been inspired by the Rati to keep on and to value my time as an artist and person. I have also allowed myself to let go of many barriers I'd accepted. I know that my own revealing may get in my way professionally, but I made the decision to express already knowing the potential damage to myself – although Zoë's comment about death threats gives pause – and I realised I wnt to do this now. I want to speak about my stuff. No one has to read it. Once they see who I am – what I am about, I am happy to let them go if they are not interested.

    xo

    Reply
  17. Keith

    David's comment is funny, because I want to hear about anything BUT a writer's writing life. I barely even want to hear myself talking about my own–though I do anyway, sometimes.

    The authors I follow are just funny or interesting. The last thing I want in my feed is book titles and Anne Lamott quotes.

    I also think "personal access" to a writer's inner life is an illusion–and intentionally so. I let part of my personal history and experience show on Twitter, and though it's real, it's a performance. The really painful stuff is (1) nobody's business, and (2) less urgent in fiction once I use it on Twitter.

    So I'll be funny, I'll be pointed, and yeah, I'll occasionally lapse into TMI; but nobody's getting my real story in an RSS feed–and until I find a way to use it in a book, they never will.

    Reply
  18. KDJames

    The better I get to "know" and like a writer whose fiction I haven't yet read, the more hesitant I am to read it. Because what if, even while liking the public persona of the writer, I despise their novels? Then again, I have never read a book and loved it and then set out to find that writer's blog or website or try to discover more about their personal life. Just not interested.

    But I do appreciate blogs like this one where writers talk about various aspects of writing — whether those be technical craft discussions or sharing the trials and tribulations of "being a writer" as it relates to family and other responsibilities. I'm especially appreciative of those who manage to inject humour on occasion. But that's just me.

    Gar, reading these small details you've related in this post about your early writing efforts and your mother doesn't make me more, or less, likely to read your fiction. It does make me more likely to comment on your posts and perhaps look forward to meeting you in person one day at a writing conference. Restraining order optional.

    For me, that's the purpose of social media — forming a friendly comfortable connection with other writers that makes a solitary and often lonely profession just a wee bit less so. But we all find our own balance. If sharing certain things ever feels uncomfortable, just don't go there.

    Reply
  19. Gayle

    As a reader I don't really care about your personal life. If I buy an author's book and like it, chances are I will purchase another one written by the same author. Actually in this tell everyone everything era, I think I prefer someone who says my private life is just that: private. I don't look down on those who do share more with their readers, but for me it's just not necessary. I think Louise has the right idea.

    Reply
  20. Barb

    As a reader and one who normally doesn't comment I want to say that I don't expect authors to share personal information. I read a few blogs, like this one, because I find myself entertained and intrigued and sometimes I go away with things to think about. I think the decision about what and how much to share with the world should be personal. I don't go searching for information on authors and I usually find new authors through referrals from friends. I truly don't believe that you should need to share personal experiences in order to sell a book. That said, some of the things that have been shared here have been profoundly moving and I thank you for them. I think I read this blog because as writers, you all write well, whatever you decide to write about.

    Reply
  21. Reine

    Aaaaaaaah . . . gee. I've been thinking about this for a couple of days now. Something just has not been sitting right with me about the whole topic, or maybe it's about the responses. Dunno. But here's my new thought in case anyone else is being revisited by this and gives a shit.

    It is a time-honored tool in the humanities to learn about the artist through means other than empirical. Learning about Van Gogh enhances our experience of his work. Unless you are just cranking your work out for a buck, you want your audience to come away with something more than an entertaining story. You, like Van Gogh, or Mozart, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Loretta Jarak, Dostoevsky, John Lennon, Silanion anyone out there with something to say that empiricism can not touch, have something to give beyond the simple production of a piece of work.

    Reply
  22. Gar Haywood

    But Reine, can't we as artists let our work do all our revealing of self for us? Who I am and what I am is all in there, whether I consciously inject myself into the work or not. Would I really be adding that much to the reader's experience by delving into my personal history in order to spell out WHY my work reads the way it does?

    Reply
  23. Reine

    "But Reine, can't we as artists let our work do all our revealing of self for us? Who I am and what I am is all in there, whether I consciously inject myself into the work or not. Would I really be adding that much to the reader's experience by delving into my personal history in order to spell out WHY my work reads the way it does?"

    Gar, yes of course it isn't your job to do anything but whatever it is you do. I am responding to the idea that it is in some way intrusive for readers, consumers of any art if you will, to want to know about the artist. They might be intrusive of course, but it is within reason to want to illuminate your understanding of a piece of work with some sense of who the artist is. This is not to say for example, that Van Gogh's dark potato eaters and bright fields tell you that his temporal lobe disease created the dramatic differences. But knowing about his well-documented seizure disorder and that it had an effect on his creativity takes your understanding out of the realm of simple thinking such as that's his bright period or brown period. Van Gogh was tortured by the same disorder that Dostoevsky embraced and wrote freely about.

    Reply

Leave a Reply to Gayle Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *