I have only lately determined to remember some of my early adventures. Till now I have always avoided them, even with a certain uneasiness. Now, when I am not only recalling them, but have actually decided to write an account of them, I want to try the experiment whether one can, even with oneself, be perfectly open and not take fright at the whole truth. — Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground
“I would not be concerned with the secrets, the lies, the mysteries, the facts. I would be concerned with what makes them necessary. What fear.” — Anais Nin, The Diary of Anais Nin: Vol. I
At some point, toward the beginning of the summer, I became more than slightly obsessed with the question of truth in personal writing. It wasn’t a question of craft — what to tell, how to tell it — so much as a moral crisis. If I have a value system, reckless honesty ranks high within it. But it’s easier to lie about oneself than about anything else, primarily because it’s easier to lie to oneself than to anyone else; we tend to be our own most gullible readers. And I got the sense that, more often than not, the story I remembered was only the story I most wanted to believe.
I raked through my pieces, looking for sins of which to accuse myself. I found distorted chronology, missing details, imprecisions, false precision, inadvertent cruelties, intentional cruelties, invasions of privacy, a frankly disgusting amount of self-justification, even in pieces that had seemed harmless, and even in pieces where all concerned agreed that I’d told the truth. This process was more than slightly insane; the littlest thing could set me off. I remember those margaritas being $3. I remember that being their only real attraction. But what were the odds that I could remember the exact price of a drink I’d had, several years ago, without taking notes, and when I’d had enough of them to get an impulsive tattoo after the fact? Couldn’t the margaritas have been $5? Or $4, or $7? The spectre of involuntary margarita-related falsehood kept me up at night.
My existential crisis was well-timed. The subject of women’s autobiography — specifically, how much they could tell, and whether they should tell it — was being widely discussed, and fought over. Emily Books was promoting several great examples of it (some of which I reviewed). Marie Calloway and Cat Marnell were attracting a fervent cult fan base, and an equally fervent cult of detractors. Girls and Sheila Heti were so ubiquitous that people joked about having to include their names in a pitch in order to sell it. After a few months of relentlessly hating myself and/or my writing, I was able to produce quite a few pieces on the debate, more often than not arguing both sides.
The terms of the debate — which you’ve likely heard already, but which it’s worth rehashing — are as follows. For the defense: Women have never been encouraged to be honest. Traditional femininity both requires a permanent emotional pseudo-virginity — an appealing blankness, a lack of “baggage,” upon which men can impress their own fantasies and needs — and encourages women to fear or pathologize their own feelings, which are always suspect, always potentially “sentimental” or “melodramatic” or “hysterical.” In the old sexist dichotomy, men were proudly impersonal, gifted with transcendence: They slipped the surly bonds of earth and touched the realms of pure, objective intellect. And if they happened to write about their bad relationships or their breakdowns or their various organ-meat-based masturbational tactics, as they traversed these lofty regions, well, that was Art, my good man. High culture, don’t you know. Brave and ground-breaking and explosive and rebellious and all those other nice, laudatory, masculine-sounding adjectives. Meanwhile, women covering the same ground were supposedly stuck in rehashing petty, pointless personal bullshit. Women didn’t write, or even self-express; they just “overshared.” Therefore, women who actually do share a risky or unflattering amount of personal information are pushing back against the system, breaking new ground, and presenting us with a full, complex portrait of female existence that isn’t filtered primarily through male fantasies or fears.
The prosecution’s case can be summed up in one word: “Narcissism.” Specifically, as John Cook at Gawker writes in regard to Girls, “the exhaustion of ceaselessly dramatizing your own life while posing as someone who understands the fundamental emptiness and narcissism of that very self-dramatization.” The act of writing about oneself is self-inflating, a way of recreating oneself as a fascinating character, even if that character is ugly. And it can also be a dodge which allows one to remain stuck in adolescent acts of self-definition without engaging with the larger social context in any meaningful way. There are wars, there is poverty, there is starvation, there are diseases and injustices and super-PACs; writing about your insensitive college boyfriend does very little to solve the problem. And it’s none too kind to the boyfriend, either.
Or, as Houghton Mifflin wrote to Anais Nin in 1942, rejecting her diaries:
There is no doubt it is a remarkable performance that should someday be published and may well achieve permanence as the ultimate in neurotic self-absorption, a kind of decadent St. Theresa. Certainly the writing is extraordinary, the cadences, the ability to communicate an intensity of emotion. But I don’t think this is the time to bring it out. Today such morbid preoccupation with one’s inner life will seem trivial.
“Today,” apparently, has lasted for seventy years. And it is frankly flabbergasting that any of these conversations — the one about women and autobiography; the one about autobiography and female narcissism; for that matter, the conversations about the act of documenting one’s daily life and creating a more or less truthful public persona, which, in the era of Tumblr and Facebook, are relevant to men and women alike — have gone on this long without a serious consideration of Anais Nin.