I spent all weekend thinking about Emily Cooke’s provocative essay about New Narrative and its legacy. I also spent all weekend at a yoga retreat center in the Berkshires. It felt a little weird to be abandoning my city when it is still in the middle of a crisis, but we had planned the trip a long time ago and I figured my city could get along without me for the weekend. Besides, I was on the verge of becoming useless at volunteering due to an increasing tendency to tear up if anyone made eye contact, so maybe it was a good time for me to take a few days to eat vegan food and hike and attend workshops on meditation and mantra taught by people named after Hindu deities.
Toward the end of our retreat experience I said something mildly bitchy to my Mom about the whole thing of [retreat center] — I can’t remember what it was — and my mom said that it would be great if someone wrote about [the place] because there was so much “material.” I told her that this surplus of material was exactly why it would be impossible to describe. There’s just too much detail, where would you start? Sure, you could describe the place’s ample ridiculousness – the “Noon Dance,” the army of near-identical ladies of a certain age with a certain haircut and a certain type of shawl talking to each other very seriously about Eastern spiritual matters they have learned about in the previous half-hour, the injunctions posted in the stairwells that read, for example,”Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” — but it would be tricky to do that and also capture the profound seriousness of what happens there. I just deleted a whole paragraph that had the words “good energy” and “healing” in it. Anyway: not the point. The point was that we were having a conversation about “material” and what writers do with it.
One idea that I felt like Emily Cooke’s essay gave me permission to have: there’s a fine line between rejecting formal conventions and just being too lazy or incompetent to adhere to them. Often critics get this distinction wrong, or privilege “craft” in a way that is plainly sexist. Still, it’s true that New Narrative-school writers sometimes exploit the fuzziness of this distinction by being lazy and incompetent and passing their laziness off as, at best, a formal choice and, at worst, a revolutionary gesture. When someone publishes a book that’s simultaneously self-serious and sloppy, even I — bloggy writing’s #1 fan — lose my patience.
And yet I would still hesitate before privileging, as Cooke seems to by the end of her essay, the tried-and-true methods of “ordering experience” that her “semiautobiographers” have one way or another rejected. ”New Narrative’s inheritors invoke a repressive culture that no longer really exists, traded in for one that gorges on sex scenes and has no use for privacy,” she writes. While certainly some amount of sexual weirdness has become more mainstream, and Dick Hebidge’s piteous cries of violated privacy circa I Love Dick’s publication are incomprehensible in our era of constant social media self-surveillance, I have a hard time seeing these cultural tendencies as liberatory, exactly. Repressive cultural forces still exist, they’re just changed shape — self-repression, in an era of widespread self-publishing, is a newly relevant enemy to be reckoned with. Market forces — the people who are in charge of, per Chris Kraus’s maxim, “who gets to speak and why,” give us all those sex scenes to gorge on. And as large as “Girls” looms in the Brooklyn-based cultural imagination, it’s still true that only a small sliver of sex scenes reflect women’s perspective and women’s experiences. Women who bring cultural artifacts into being still, unless they’re unusually uninhibited or plain crazy, have to shake off all their fundamental training and self-preservation impulses in order to produce work that is at all truthful. If “repressive” isn’t the word I’m not sure what is.
When I was younger I didn’t have as much control over the narrative strategies I deployed; I didn’t really have multiple strategies at my disposal. I don’t think I could have figured out how to “cook” my experience; it was raw or nothing. I’ve just begun to get slightly better at cooking, and many of the people Cooke lists as New Narrative’s progenitors have, too — either they have shifted away from first-person writing to close-third-person narration mostly full-time (Chris Kraus) or they are consciously deploying different modes as different projects demand them (Dodie Bellamy). But I think it’s dangerous to see this as a straightforward path of evolution. In that same conversation with my mom I tried to tell her that I’d been sad to lose the previous clueless/fearless self who had put so much of her unmediated life online. Here is E. Cooke’s deft and almost unjudgemental analysis of the “raw” “blog-like” or “bulimic” style:
Never edited by an alien hand, totally under the control of the writer, the blog post refuses to be anything but what it wants to be. It will not subject itself to “some highly toned artificial neat form,” to quote Zambreno. The (ostensibly) vomiting or blog-like narrative will make the mistakes it makes; it will be as clear or unclear as the writer pleases. Most important, it will read as it was first written. The amount of time that passes between the writing and the posting is between the writer and herself, but if she wishes, there need be none at all.
One of the terrifying things about writing is that sometimes the same techniques and strategies that can improve your work can destroy it, and it’s hard, as you work, to know what’s happening. Sometimes a long process of revision and outside editing can strengthen and clarify stories and make them worth reading; sometimes it can leave them as limp and lifeless as an oil-free steam-table vegan curry. Worse, incompetent editing can shunt experience and description into the evil proscribed molds — This American Life-y punchlines, women’s-magazine happy endings — that kill truth.
Writing that’s aware of itself as writing and that is performative and spontaneous will often be able to sidestep those concerns. As much as I regret huge swaths of what I’ve written — sorry to sing this tune again, but I have to remind myself that it keeps being true — I am grateful to myself for not always waiting for my “material” to coalesce into meaning before writing.