Leonard Michaels: Writing About Myself

Leonard Michaels (1933–2003) was the author of Going Places, I Would Have Saved Them If I Could, and The Men’s Club, among other books. FSG recently published his Collected Stories and The Essays of Leonard Michaels, and reissued his novel Sylvia. David Bezmozgis on Michaels and “Writing About Myself.”

Nothing should be easier than talking about ways in which I write about myself, but I find it isn’t at all easy. Indeed, in writing about myself I encounter a problem that engages me even as I write this sentence. The problem is how not to write merely about myself. I think the problem is endemic among writers whether or not they are aware of it. The basic elements of writing—diction, grammar, tone, imagery, the patterns of sound made by your sentences—say a good deal about you, so that it is possible for you to be writing about yourself before you even know you are writing about yourself. Regardless of your subject, the basic elements, as well as countless and immeasurable qualities of mind, are at play in your writing and will make your presence felt to a reader as palpably as your handwriting. You virtually write your name, as it were, before you literally sign your name, every time you write. Spinoza wrote his Ethics in Latin, a language nobody spoke anymore, using a severely logical method of argument. The last thing he wanted was to make his presence felt, or to write about himself. The way he wrote his Ethics was rather like the way he lived, determined to remain obscure, uncompromised by a recognizable identity in the public world. The impersonal purity of his Ethics, then, couldn’t have been more self-expressive. The book wasn’t published in his lifetime, partly because it would have been recognized as his book. In his obscurity, he was too well known.

Shakespeare isn’t discoverable in a personal way in anything he wrote, and yet it is generally agreed that we know what Shakespeare wrote, or what only he is likely to have written. His sonnets, which are among the most personal poems ever written, are remarkably artificial in their quatrains, couplets, puns, and paradoxes, devices that are manifestly impersonal. It is curiously relevant that, in Shakespeare’s various signatures, he never spelled his name the same way twice, rather as if he thought his personal identity had very little to do with a particular way of spelling his name. A particular way would simply be individual.

Montaigne said of his essays, “I have no more made this book than this book has made me.” I think he means his writing revealed him to himself, and the revelations weren’t always consciously intended. Again and again in his essays he seems to discover himself inadvertently, which is to say only that your radically personal identity, with or without your consent, is made evident in your writing. Like a fingerprint. Or, what is even more personally telling, a face print: according to experts, there are eighty places in the human face that can be used to identify a person. These whorls and aspects are unique, if not exactly personal in the same way as your sentence structure.

One rainy night many years ago, I went with a friend to a jazz club called Basin Street in Greenwich Village to hear a Miles Davis quartet. There was a small, sophisticated crowd. It applauded in the right places. At a certain point Miles Davis began turning his back to the crowd whenever he played a solo. I don’t know what he thought he was doing, but the effect was to absent himself from the tune, as though he were saying, “Don’t look at me. I’m not here. Listen to it.” He gave us a lesson in music appreciation, or the appreciation of any art. With Davis’s back turned, the music became more personal.

A professor of mathematics at Berkeley told me that, while reading a newspaper article about the Unabomber, he suddenly realized the man had been his student. The professor then went to his files, pulled out the Unabomber’s math papers and reviewed them. He said, “B/B+.” Mathematics couldn’t be further from the kinds of self-presentation and self-revelation to which all of us are constantly susceptible, but even in the absolutely neutral language of equations, the Unabomber had declared his identity. From the point of view of a mathematician, B/B+ was the man.

I think we name ourselves, more or less, whenever we write, and thus tend always to write about ourselves. When people ask if you write by hand or use a typewriter or a computer, they are interested to know how personal your writing is. But even now in the age of electronic writing when the revelations of handwriting have become rare, a ghostly electronic residue of persons remains faintly discernible in words and sentence structure. A more familiar example of what I’m getting at are phone calls. Imagine answering the phone and hearing a voice you haven’t heard in years, a voice that says only your name or even only hello, and you say instantly, “Aunt Molly, it’s been so long since you phoned.” There’s a joke that touches on this experience: The phone rings. Molly says, “Hello,” and a man’s voice says, “Molly, I know you and I know what you want. I’m coming over there and I’m going to throw you on the floor and do every dirty thing to you.” Molly says, “You know all this from hello?”

In another kind of personal revelation, you see a picture that you’ve never seen before and you say, “Hokusai,” or “Guercino,” or “Cranach.” With the names you announce that you have recognized a unique presence. The sheer existence of a human being, let alone personal presence in an artist’s style, tends to be an announcement, virtually a name. This is no less true of my uncelebrated aunt Molly than the great and famous Hokusai. Adam was required to name the animals, but how could he have done that unless their names were already implicit in their individual being? Obviously, this beast is Lion, and this can only be Pig. In regard to animals the case is more individual than personal, as far as we know. If an animal could spell its name, it would be spelled the same way every time. Existence moves in the direction of names.

Diction, grammar, imagery, the sound of a person’s voice on the phone, the way an animal looks—if a thing has any sort of sensational existence, a name is being announced, and this is true even if it goes unrecognized. It is God who says, “I am that I am,” and remains nameless, accessible only through the via negativa. As Spinoza puts it, substance is conceived only in and through itself; that is, only in terms of itself. As for us folks, or any other finite individual entity, we are among the modes of substance and, ultimately, “rolled round in earth’s diurnal course with rocks and stones and trees.” This mournful line is from Wordsworth’s profoundly personal poem about a woman who is never named. What makes the poem so haunting is that, regardless of the woman who is its subject, it is almost entirely, and desperately, about Wordsworth. Inevitably, we are names or nothing. To say Henry IV or John Smith III is to say a name that precedes the being it names. The fourth Henry, the third John Smith.

I once wrote a story in which I quoted a freshman theme that had been submitted to my class. The student wrote: “Karl Marx, for that was his name . . .” It’s as if Marx’s father had said to his wife, “I’ve decided to name our boy Karl,” and his wife said, “No, no, anything but Karl,” and the father said, “I’m afraid I have no choice, for that is his name.”

For reasons I understand very imperfectly, though I suppose they are obvious to anyone else by this point, it has always been more difficult for me to write about myself than any other subject. What I know for sure is that writing about myself always entails writing about other people, and there is a chance someone will be embarrassed or hurt even if my intentions are innocent. According to the Torah, this is an extremely serious sin. After death everyone goes to Gehenna, but only those who have not “embarrassed their neighbor” ever come back.

One of my brightest and most likeable students was named Canterbury. He wanted me to direct his dissertation. I told him that he ought to ask one of my colleagues who is well known as a scholar or critic, and has connections and will help him get a job. No. Canterbury wanted me to be the director. Finally, I agreed. Canterbury wrote a brilliant prospectus, and then became amazingly casual about the prospect of writing any more. Eventually, he left for West Virginia, his home state, where he made a name for himself in politics. Like Miles Davis, he’d turned his back on the audience that was me. Canterbury had to escape individual distinction, to achieve something personal. Before he left for West Virginia, I asked him to find a certain kind of old handmade tool, an adze, and bring it to me when he visited California. About six months later he presented me with the tool used in As I Lay Dying to make a coffin. I was very touched. Nothing remained of our professor-student relationship. We had become purely friends.

When I was writing my novel The Men’s Club, it occurred to me that Canterbury was the right name for one of the characters. The character looked nothing like the real Canterbury, and his personality couldn’t be more different, but my friend, the real Canterbury, was shocked. How could I have done this to him? “So that’s what you think about me,” he said. He went on and on reminding me of what I had done to him. I couldn’t tell if he was serious.

Usually, when writing about myself, I will disguise the people I talk about and never use their real names. Occasionally, when I want to say something innocuous or affectionate, I’ll ask permission to use the real name. One of my writer friends, also a former student, found it mysteriously impossible not to use real names when writing about herself, though it could make no difference to the quality or the sale of her book. She simply couldn’t bring herself to change the names. As a result, people were hurt and family relations were irreparably damaged. There is something horrific about seeing your name in print. For some of us, it’s almost as disturbing as a photograph. Even when writing only about myself, I’m reluctant to use my name in a sentence and I do it only when I have no choice. It gives me the creeps to write “Leonard” or “Lenny,” except in letters.

I think I know why my student couldn’t help using real names despite the consequences for her family relations. In my experience when writing about myself, the moment I begin making up names for the real people in my life, there seems to be a loss of seriousness, and then I can’t get rid of the feeling and everything begins to seem like a lie, even if everything—except for a few names—is true. The impulse toward truth is built into our existence just as the shape of our eyes is built into our genes, and the truth, like murder, wants out. My friend should have changed the names of the real people in her book, but she couldn’t do it. She was possessed by a sort of demonic righteousness. “I’m writing the truth and nothing but. These are the true names.” People often say, when accused of slanderous gossip, “But it’s the truth,” as if that were a justification.

Another reason I have trouble writing about myself, aside from what it entails in regard to other people, has to do with the essential nature of writing. As Freud says, “Writing is the record of an absent person,” which is a condensation of what Socrates said about not writing. He said, if you have something to say, you ought to be present to answer questions from your audience, because truth lies only in the practice of the dialectic and is extremely difficult to seize. When it happens, it is like a sudden flame. In Plato’s seventh letter, he goes on about the frivolousness that is inevitable to writing, and says that any man who tries to write the truth, as it is known to himself, must be insane. There is no better definition of insanity.

Freud’s way of restating Socrates’ point, “the record of an absent person,” is very suggestive. If you are absent when you write, it follows that you must be absent to the second power when you write about yourself. I’m trying to reconcile the idea of presence when writing about oneself with the Socratic-Freudian idea of absence at the heart of writing, itself. First a joke that touches on the dreadful complexity of simultaneous presence and absence:

The king and his court are out hunting elk in the royal forest. A poacher sees them coming and becomes terrified. He leaps from behind a bush and cries, “I am not an elk.” Immediately, the king shoots him. One of the courtiers says, “But, Your Majesty, he said, ‘I am not an elk.’ ” The king slaps his forehead and says, “I thought he said, ‘I am an elk.’ ”

When I write anything my presence and absence are in tension. It becomes extreme when writing about myself. What makes things worse for me is that, because of this tension, I feel very much out of fashion, since it is now common for writers to be more than usually present, even outrageously present, in their writing, whether or not they are writing about themselves. Some writers don’t know how to be otherwise than fully present. There has never been such extraordinary directness and candor. The effect is comparable to pornography—not because of explicit sexual content, but rather because such directness and candor tends to be shockingly impersonal.

The way I write about myself or anything else is, I’m afraid, personal or it’s nothing. This means I must always find some appropriate form. One example of being personal and finding an appropriate form can be seen in Hamlet’s famous soliloquy in which he thinks about suicide. He says, “That it should come to this.” As opposed to Hamlet, a contemporary in the same situation might say, “Incredible,” or some version of “Incredible,” which is a cry of me-feeling.

The difference between the contemporary speaker and Hamlet isn’t simply in the loss of the subjunctive mood but rather the loss of a significant intervening form between speaker and audience. When Hamlet says, “That it should come to this,” he is noticing the convergence of terrific forces outside himself. One force is justice. The other is necessity. A grammatical form, the subjunctive mood, makes it possible for the reader and Hamlet to convene in the understanding of his personal situation. This convening is the experience of the personal. In order for it to have happened, Hamlet absents himself in the sentence as definitively as Miles Davis turning his back to the audience.

When the contemporary says, “Incredible,” we are forbidden to convene in any understanding and obliged merely to notice a figure of emotion, all of which emotion is locked within his cry, “Incredible.” This kind of expression, where meaning and feeling are at once sensationally apparent and completely unavailable to you, resembles greed. I take this to be emblematic of much contemporary writing and also much else that is contemporary. It’s probably somehow related to the culture of capitalism, in which we are incessantly assaulted by images of things that we can’t have, mainly beautiful faces and bodies, but also a lot of other things—vast fortunes, celebrity, power, love—almost anything you suppose people want.

The haiku, a poem of three lines and seventeen syllables that is usually about nature, offers a form in which writer and reader personally convene. I can’t write haikus, but, when writing about myself, I feel the impulse to write in that terse and essentializing way. This is the intended form of my book Time Out of Mind, a selection of journal entries made over thirty years. In these entries I say more about myself personally than in any other place. I also say less since the entries contain far more implication than explication. For example, I made an entry on December 12, 1993, in Hawaii, that reads:

Birdcalls wake me, a sound like names, like the trees repeating themselves in the dawn mist, each holding its place, awaiting recognition, like names.

The context for this entry is omitted. A reader could figure it out somewhat from things said in other entries, though many autobiographical details that might seem relevant to a biographer or a gossip aren’t given. I don’t say that I woke up beside my girlfriend, who was twenty-seven years younger than me and would soon leave me, which I knew, though I didn’t know she would leave me for a businessman.

My girlfriend and I had gone to Hawaii, the Puna coast of the Big Island. We were staying in one room of a primitive but elegant shack in an artists’ colony. The shack had no windows. You could sense the magnificent luxuriance and vitality outside, the trees, the weather, the light, the ocean. In the other room of the shack, there were three men. One of them coughed all night. He had AIDS and so did several other men at the colony. The wall between our rooms was a thin sheet of wood. Listening to him cough, and knowing my girlfriend would leave me, are elements of the journal entry, and a reader might get a sense of them from other entries, but they aren’t emphasized. I don’t say that her youth didn’t make me feel young, but rather the opposite, and I don’t say that the coughing all night was heartbreaking and that it intensified the heartbreak I’d begun to feel, knowing I was much closer to the end than my girlfriend and knowing she would soon leave me. I don’t say that, in the beginning of our love affair, she said she would never leave me. I don’t say that I didn’t pity myself, but felt an overwhelming melancholy. I say only that the birdcalls and the trees were like names. I watched the trees emerging in the mist, and I listened to the birdcalls. I was struck by the repetition of things and by the pathos there is in the way individual being is always emerging and calling its name as if to distinguish itself amid the mindless proliferation and density of life in general.

I don’t say much of this in the journal. When writing about myself, I find that I am interested in the expressive value of form and its relation to the personal more than I am interested in particular revelations of my individual life.

“Writing About Myself” from THE ESSAYS OF LEONARD MICHAELS by Leonard Michaels. Copyright © 2009 by Katharine Ogden Michaels. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

See Also:

David Bezmozgis on Michaels and “Writing About Myself.”