Kate Christensen and the Art of Truth

Over on Tumblr, I’ve spoken about my esteem for the writer Kate Christensen and her recently published memoir Blue Plate Special.

I can’t remember exactly how I got turned on to her writing. My best guess is that it was through Jami Attenberg’s blog or Twitter. Regardless, I’ve enjoyed Christensen’s food blogging for quite some time now, especially for the way it allows her to tell deeply intimate stories about her personal life. (This essay about traveling to Mexico as she and her then-husband were breaking up always sticks out in my mind.)

I found a used copy of her novel The Great Man at Open Books a couple years ago and quite enjoyed it, though I’ve always liked her nonfiction best.

The Great Man

Thus, I absolutely devoured Blue Plate Special when it came out last year, not just for its exceptional writing and fearless truth-telling but also (gag) for the implicit permission I feel it gives me to reach for a similar level of craft and honesty in my own work.

Let me just pause here, though, and say that I totally bristle at the now widely disseminated platitude that speaking our truth gives other people permission to do the same. It’s not that I don’t believe that it’s true, to some extent, in some situations, it’s just that I don’t think it’s the sole justification for writing, especially women’s writing.

I mean, his depression notwithstanding, do you think anyone ever told David Foster Wallace that writing his truth gave other people permission to do the same? Was his bold insistence on writing about complex mathematical concepts in Everything and More giving anyone permission to do anything? No, his mind-boggling intellect and gift for expression was surely justification enough for that book to exist.

Everything and More

There has to be room for writing (even blog writing) to be smart, well-crafted, unique, challenging, even visionary. I want more for my own work than just telling stories for the sake of telling stories.

Even though—don’t get me wrong—I love reading other people’s stories! That’s one of my favorite things about the internet, this sanctioned eavesdropping on other people’s lives. I’m just still trying to figure out, for my own self, what makes one story intriguing while another is merely a recitation of facts that doesn’t hold my interest. It’s probably something really obvious that I’m just too daft to see.

Anyway!

All this is to say that I was blown away by Christensen’s recent essay for Elle detailing how her book helped bring to justice a former teacher from her high school that had been a serial molester of teenage girls throughout the ’70s and ’80s. I urge you to read it. Not just for the police procedural aspects that allow us the satisfaction of seeing a criminal caught after so many years, but also for the way she skillfully interrogates how her teenage experiences of abuse have informed her own sexuality and psychology.

Beyond the fact that, yes, literally, her writing served to help heal a whole community of people who had suffered in silence for decades, I was dazzled by the catharsis that her writing and self-exposure afforded her.

Reading it, I allowed myself to believe, for probably the first time ever, that really writing about the meat of my life—the darkness and the fear and the wounds that I’ve been futilely trying to protect or cover or distract from—might actually be useful. Not just for myself, but, like my experience of reading Christensen’s essay, for someone who might feel a kinship with my narration of my own life events, finding power in their disclosure.

I tend to flatter myself that I’m an open book, that my emotions are immediately perceptible to anyone with a modicum of sensitivity or powers of observation. But what I discount, at my peril, is the dark side of this truth—that everyone does see me and, with that, sees my fear, my death grip on my sanitized self-presentation.

I’m not entirely sure of everything that I’m hiding and why, but, at the risk of sounding overly dramatic about it, I am sure that I’m tired of hiding in general.

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