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The writer stripped bare

It can be hard to find gifts for a father-in-law. If he’s not into golf, footy or fishing, the choices are limited. With this in mind, I thought I had struck gold when I when I found a book about birds for my literary, bird-watching father-in-law.

That was, until I started reading my own copy of Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany, a few weeks later. To my chagrin, I found that the title would have been more helpful if it also included the bees, such was its sexual content. The novel is about the sexual awakening of a boy, and the guidance provided by his older male neighbour. While it was written with beauty and poise, and was often very touching, every time I read an even slightly racy passage, I cringed that I had gifted those words to my father-in-law.

Understanding the awkwardness of just having given the book to a family member made me wonder how writers managed to delve into topics that might be awkward, embarrassing or hurtful, knowing they would be read by those who were close to them; their sisters, uncles, parents, grandparents, partners, and even in-laws?

Writing, after all, is an intensely personal craft, and even in fiction, authors reveal important, often confronting, truths about themselves.

In an appearance at the Wheeler Centre last year, writer Jonathan Franzen spoke about the difficulty of exposing his own ‘shame’ to his readers. He said that the willingness to delve into the depths of his thoughts and feelings was essential in revealing the truth of the human condition. It was a sacrifice he was prepared to make in order to write books of value and meaning.

“Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.”

In reading John Updike’s books, I was often shocked by the brutal honesty of his portrayal of relationships and sexuality. Updike was famous for mining his life for use in his fiction, with his signature “beady eye on sexual escapades, the slavering attention to women that can make him a bit creepy and sexist to later readers”, according to his biographer, Adam Begley.

However, rather than feeling any sense of shame or embarrassment about the exposure of his family in his books, Begley found that Updike had reveled in the opportunity to air his grievances, compulsively writing about his unhappy family life with his former wife, before writing a story with a “crisp and forbidding” wife who is a “fearsome nag”. Writer AL Kennedy takes a more cautious approach in her tips for aspiring writers, warning them against using the stories of those close to them.

“Defend others. You can, of course, steal stories and attributes from family and friends, fill in filecards after lovemaking and so forth. It might be better to celebrate those you love – and love itself – by writing in such a way that everyone keeps their privacy and dignity intact.”

While her approach was markedly different from Updike’s, whose loved ones provided the perfect fodder for his fiction, she agreed with Franzen about taking risks in writing, and embracing her fears.

“Be without fear. This is impossible, but let the small fears drive your rewriting and set aside the large ones until they behave – then use them, maybe even write them. Too much fear and all you’ll get is silence.”

You might think that writing a memoir would take this sense of exposure that writers face a step further. However, I’m Thinking of Ending Things author Iain Reid said that after writing both a memoir and fiction, he believed that he had felt more exposed in publishing the latter.

“No one character in my novel is a direct reproduction of me, but each character, and the ideas that concern them, are all extensions of myself. The questions the characters wrestle with are the same questions I was concerned with, obsessed with and unsure about as I wrote the novel. If not, I couldn’t have spent four years thinking about, and writing, the story.”

As readers, we value this brave honesty. We look for the truths writers tell through their stories, and often feel an affinity with their thoughts and feelings, however subversive. In ways, this desire to ‘know’ writers has fed the emergence of the celebrity author, as we attend book festivals, create fan websites and, in the case of Elena Ferrante, refuse to accept writers’ anonymity.

But not all readers are so appreciative of the honesty that fiction requires of the writer. In a piece for The New Yorker, Brad Leithauser said he approached the work of friends with a combination of gladness and wariness. He writes of the experience of reading his teacher’s work:

“There was on my part some confusion, and embarrassment, when their books disclosed boiling resentments and paralyzing insecurities, drug and alcohol abuse, wayward eroticism and larcenous fantasy. Why were they confessing to me in print what they would never confide otherwise? From the start, this business of reading friends’ books was uneasy-making.”

In the digital age, it is not just writers who expose their inner thoughts and feelings in print; in recent years there has been an explosion of bloggers and Facebook ‘friends’ who detail their most intimate moments in the public, or semi-public realm. While it is easy to mock this combination of narcissism and exhibitionism this might be interpreted as exposing, perhaps their desire to be fully known aligns in some way with the motivation of writers, who are driven by a desire to reveal human realities. While perhaps less refined in their presentation, and coarser in their language, they speak to a similar need to see and be seen.

So, as a reader, I feel grateful for the bravery of writers of every kind who explore that which is rarely spoken, breaking taboos and revealing truths, no matter how awkward or confronting. My own level of bravery is such that for my father-in-law’s next birthday, I’ll be sticking with socks and chocolates in the future.

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