Just thinking thoughts today about how evolving in public can be seen as totally against the rules. This is spurred by Elizabeth Gilbert’s post yesterday about falling in love with her female best friend, and leaving her marriage. Apparently lots of people have been publicly critical both of Gilbert, and of Gilbert’s method of sharing that information with the world. People seem to feel that it is trashy, indiscreet, somehow not "Real."
Yeah, she’s made a lot of money by telling her stories to the world. Thing is, how one tells one’s story, and to whom, is their own business. She told her story in Eat, Pray, Love as an inspirational memoir, and subsequently, it became a famous how-to-be-happy go-to text, a movie, a second memoir about marriage. She had a career before that book too – and she has had one after, both as a fiction writer, and as a speaker and writer of nonfiction.
She isn’t perfect.
No one, ever, in the history of ever, has been perfect.
We all hurt people. We all hurt ourselves. This is what it is to be human.
If you think you’ve never hurt anyone else, you’re wrong. Even if you’re trying not to hurt other people, being human means sometimes your own needs will be at odds with other people’s needs, and all you can do is try to be graceful.
So, Elizabeth Gilbert’s story, what people perceive as her entire self (but isn’t), became a product as well as her real story. Lots of people felt unhappy about that – that she would "exploit" her life and sell it. Was her story the only version of the events depicted in Eat, Pray, Love? Of course not. Other people were all over that text. There are other versions.
There is also no way to write an unbiased memoir. They’re inherently biased. You have YOUR story, and your story is yours to tell.
This is also a long tradition. It’s just a slightly different version when you are your own balladeer rather than a hero hiring a balladeer to tell his exploits. You’re controlling the narrative. Make no mistake, though, old school balladeers were biased too.
Feelings here, for fairly obvious reasons, if you know me. I published a memoir ten years ago about a year I went out with everyone who asked me out. This year was how I met my now-ex husband, and he’s the last chapter in that book. THE YEAR OF YES was very commercially interesting, both to publishers, and to all kinds of people. I did a lot of press for it. I went on TV, radio, magazines, newspapers. The book contained only a very small slice of my story as a human, but to many people, it seemed as though I had sold myself, that I had somehow done this massively inappropriate thing, and "exploited" my story for commercial gain.
People called me the usual variety of names.
I’m a writer. Before that memoir, and after it. I make stories. These days, many of them are imagined stories. I write monsters and gods and myth now, but back then, I wrote a book about myself, about about throwing my heart open to the world, what it was like to do that as a young woman in America. That too was an act of creation. I edited my soul into 90,000 words, and put it out into the world.
Was this exploitation? Was this a wrong thing to do?
No. It was a powerful thing. It was an act of ownership of my own life. I chose it, and that was because my story was mine.
I sold my story. Your story is yours to tell, AND yours to sell.
Some people hated it, mind you, but lots of people found it inspiring. I still hear from people very frequently who have changed their lives for the better because they felt inspired – and given permission – by the story that was my story. Sometimes just seeing someone like you succeed – I say this for women especially – is enough to make you realize you could succeed too. That you could risk. That you could find happiness in unusual places. It’s a big deal to see an example of that in the world.
Elizabeth Gilbert has done that for many millions of people.
And she has evolved in public. Her story is more complicated than it seemed. Guess what? Love is more complicated than it seems. Even when it looks like a fairy tale. Even when it IS a fairytale. Things can change.
I evolved in public too, though less in public than she has. I haven’t written another memoir about love, nor do I have plans to do so – but then I never did. I had one book like that in me. That’s not because I don’t think it would be valuable to tell more of the story that started there – it’s because I’m busy with other things, and other things are, at present, more interesting to me as this writer, one who’s been all over the map.
I think Elizabeth Gilbert is brave. It’s a strange thing to show vulnerability in public, to put yourself up in front of a public that often wants a very simple story: Flawed woman finds love, flawed woman keeps love, flawed woman lives happily ever after, having made the right choice.
Her version – which involves changes, unexpected ones, expected ones, is a constantly evolving story of a person who has told her story in public the way she saw it at the time – and then, this is the brave part – showed herself as someone who didn’t always get it right, someone who hurt other people on her path to this moment.
That is normal.
That is what life is like.
The idea that love may not be permanent, that it may end, that one might fall in love with someone else after years of loving one person, that one may in fact, be queer instead of straight, be in love with a woman instead of a man, be totally different that one thought one was? The idea that one may not be fixed in need and desire from one year to the next, that one may not know what one will want at 45, when one is 25?
That’s a transgressive idea to share in public, because it’s scary. It is destabilizing.
It also happens all the time.
It’s isn’t exploiting your story to say that. It isn’t exploiting your audience to say that. It’s telling the truth.
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