In our correspondence about his memoir The Blessing, I asked Gregory Orr about the accusation sometimes leveled in the literary world that memoir is mere “therapy,” whereas in fact memoir writing may stir the psyche in disturbing ways. His response appears as a guest post.
Guest Post by Gregory Orr
Therapeutic—that term has such a bad odor among us. I wonder why? “That’s not art, it’s therapy.” You hear that a lot, but I have to wonder what’s going on with that distinction. Why not say that it’s “human utterance” fashioned in a way that tries to engage other people’s interest and to reward their attention with the grace of the writing and the pleasure of the sentences or even the marvel of the story it tells (“Do such things really happen? Do people really act that way?”). Why not say autobiographical writing connects the writer to the larger human community by trying to speak to them and engage their attention. And it connects readers to other individuals through their curiosity about the story and/or through their potential identification with the teller of the tale?
Lots of things come to mind: I wouldn’t rush to say that therapeutic writing is limited. Etymologically “therapeutic” has to do with healing and curing. Is that a small or insignificant thing? And if the self should try to heal itself by speaking its story, is that an insignificant or unworthy human project? And if a self (the memoirist) tells her or his story and in the process experiences healing and deeper understanding of their life experience isn’t that terrific?
As for the reader, I think of memoir as being like “personal lyric” (lyric that often features an “I” speaking or acting). One secret of personal lyric is that it extends a “lyric invitation” to the reader: identify with me for the length of this document (poem/memoir)—“become” me and see through my eyes, think with my thoughts. It’s what Whitman does in his quintessential personal lyric/American poem: “I celebrate myself and sing myself (i.e. ego or “pride” as Whitman would call it) and what I assume you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Whitman is going to “assume” other identities in his poem: the identities of other people he meets or sees or reads about who fascinate him. He’ll assume their identities (Keats says the poet is a “chameleon” and has no identity, assumes other identities). Whitman assumes identities and he invites us readers to assume his and “go along for the ride.” Or William Carlos Williams puts it this way in the beginning of “Spring and All”: “In the imagination, we are from henceforth (so long as you read) locked in a fraternal embrace, the classic caress of author and reader. We are one. Whenever I say ‘I’ I mean also, ‘you.’ And so, together, as one, we shall begin.” (Imaginations; pg. 89)
The trick is: we readers will only “accept” this lyric invitation if it interests us. If we can’t or don’t or won’t enter into “sympathetic identification” with the speaker of the poem or memoir, then we just stop reading. We’re bored or turned off. But if we decide to accept it, then we go along for the ride. Who knows what realms of experience will open up to us, vicariously but vividly? Who knows how much our knowledge of human experience will be expanded by the journey?
This business about “art”—what do we really mean by it? That we, with our personal taste, think that it is well done? Great. But when I started out reading, with my limited knowledge of possibilities, I thought lots of things were “art” that I later thought weren’t as impressive, and I read lots of stuff that was too much for me and dismissed it. I’m not sure at all what is “great art” or “great poetry” any more. I’m happier using the criteria of how it makes me feel: am I very impressed by the writing, by the insights? Do they move me? Do I feel deepened or expanded or exhilarated by the experience of reading it? Who cares if someone else doesn’t care for it?
But when someone else doesn’t like something they often say: “that’s not art, it’s therapy.” Or better yet: “That’s not even poetry”—which is what they said when a) Wordsworth published his poems, b) Whitman published Leaves of Grass. It’s “not even poetry”—it’s “not art.” Maybe. Maybe you just think it isn’t. We all pretty much agree that Wordsworth and Whitman wrote poetry, though we still may not care for it. Who knows? Who knows? Life is a really long and complicated journey. To me, writing a memoir helped me understand a lot of the darker early parts of my journey. And if my story is of interest to some other people, so much the better.
(This is something I came across: “sympathy” is a key concept in Whitman and I think Adam Smith’s book is where he got the term: In the 18th century, the notion of Sympathy (or Sympathetic Identification), what we would now call either empathy or identification, was put forward by the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith. He’s concerned with the fact that our senses “trap” us inside our own bodies and in order to connect emotionally to another human being we must transcend these sense through an act of imagination as sympathy/identification. Here is an excerpt from the opening page of his book:
Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our sense will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations. . . . By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him . . . —Adam Smith The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)
One of the neat things about the Smith passage is that it gives a large role to imagination, which is what all we poets specialize in.
Also, this: we give sympathy when we read (i.e. we identify with what we read, with our speaker, at least partly) and we solicit sympathetic identification from our readers (i.e. we ask them to identify with us, we hope they will at least enough to hear our story). This give and take of identification is a lot of what lyric art is about and it’s a hugely important human transaction.
[See also my interview with Orr about his memoir The Blessing.]