There’s an idea that comes up a lot when it comes to writing personal narratives. Everyone wants to know: where’s the line when it comes to writing about others? Should we bare our souls, throwing caution to the wind – or should we be mindful of the effect our words can have, and respect everyone’s right to tell their own stories?
In late 2005, at the age of seventeen, I am involved in a very heady e-relationship with someone from my high school. To put it crudely, I fall in love with this person over msn messenger. We craft versions of ourselves that are so dishonest, and yet, nothing has ever been more true to me. When they tell me what television shows they’re watching, or what the acupuncturist said at their appointment today, it’s something solid. Television isn’t just television. Needles aren’t just needles.
There’s another solution many return to: simply wait for them to die.
Sylvia Plath utilised this method; it’s said that she planned to wait until after her mother’s death to publish The Bell Jar under her own name (it was only published under her own name posthumously) and then Plath became essentially silenced when, after her death, her estranged husband Ted Hughes inherited her estate and promptly burned some of her work, including her last journal, then finally claimed to have “lost” yet another journal as well as an unpublished manuscript. Before his own death, Hughes published a collection of 88 – yes, 88 – poems about his life with Plath. It’s very possible – almost certain, really – that Plath’s destroyed work contained her own account of their relationship; unfortunately hers was “edited” out of existence and Hughes was given license to paint himself in whatever light he so chose. (Still, it’s not as though we’re exactly left wondering about what Plath might have had to say on the matter. I’m going to put it out there that a man with such dubious ethics and an unparalleled need to have the last word is probably nobody’s ideal husband.)
Was this ethically wrong of Hughes? What are we owed in death? We’re told not to speak ill of the dead, but aren’t given many good reasons not to. We’re told that the dead should be afforded dignity, and yet we’re often left confused as to what shape such a dignity might take. We’re bereft at the words that Hughes, in burning Plath’s work, took away from us. But what about all the unfinished posthumous manuscripts that have been dragged into existence by executors of estates? (And that’s just posthumous manuscripts – let’s not even get into the myriad of issues surrounding the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.) In the foreword to Virginia Woolf’s posthumous story collection, A Haunted House and Other Stories, her husband Leonard Woolf writes, “I have included five unpublished stories. It is with some hesitation that I have included them. None of them, except ‘The Searchlight,’ are finally revised by her, and she would certainly have done a great deal of work on them before she published them. Four of them are only just in the stage beyond that of her first sketch.” This transparency is refreshing; Leonard Woolf’s real desire to do the “right thing” by his wife is palpable, and makes clear the complexities one faces when one is the executor to such a literary figure. Still, though, in reading the collection I feel the ghost of Virginia Woolf hovering over my shoulder, appalled. Her husband tells us that he is hesitant, that Woolf would not have published them in such a condition – then gives no explanation as to why he’s chosen to go against his wife’s wishes and publish her sub-par (for Woolf, at least) work. As writers, should we be owed even in death the right to choose how our work is presented – and whether it is at all?
I send my crush drafts of my early work. Years later, this horrifies me greatly. Imagine exactly the poems that you would expect a seventeen year-old public-schooled drama student to write. This is what I send computer to computer. If I happen to become famous one day and then die, there is nothing stopping this person from publishing these early attempts, these hot messes. Every writer thinks about this. If they don’t they are lying.
Many would say no. I might say no, myself, if asked. Here’s the thing: the living have more of a say than the dead. That’s just how it works. By nature, the dead are stripped of an agency the living get to continue enjoying. (In writing memoir, when navigating the telling of others’ experiences, one rule of thumb many espouse is: always make yourself come out looking worse.)
It might be a harsh conclusion to arrive at, but in reading I’m Very Into You, a collection of emails exchanged between Kathy Acker and McKenzie Wark in 1995-1996 before Acker’s death in 1997, one doesn’t get the sense that co-email correspondent Wark and executor of Acker’s estate, Matias Viegener, have spent much time at all wrestling with the complexities of their roles in publishing this collection. Viegener ponders it for about five seconds in the introduction: “What is it exactly that an executor does, other than answer queries and sign contracts? Perhaps we will know her differently now…” then changes the subject.
Instead, what is placed in front of us is a couple of men deciding things for Acker and ostensibly editing away most traces of their own vulnerability. The dishonesty is palpable. Viegener writes, “There were emails between them after [the emails in the collection], but of these only one survives…I have also altered the names of a few individuals Acker would not have wanted compromised. Wark has also changed some names…” and one wonders at the convenience of certain emails simply “disappearing”. And, sure, email seems to have operated differently in the mid 90s. (At one point Acker mentions a trip she is taking and informs McKenzie that he can reach her at her friend’s email address. Frequent references to the inability to read past emails adds to the confusion.) But it’s hard to imagine that if these emails could be dug up, that those unaccounted for weren’t sitting there in the inbox too. They must simply – somewhere along the way – have been deleted. But deleted by Acker? Or by Wark? In life or after it? If the fact of the emails themselves can be read as an implied participation in performance art (I’m dubious) then is this disappearance an act of performance art too? (Also dubious.)
Years later, I delete all record of our e-history together. It causes too much pain, the raw honesty that comes from so much lying. Neither of us are who we have promised to each other. There was never a point at which such a thing was truly possible. And yet the strength of the connection remains and I on some level am convinced things will change. Deleting the emails is a physical pain, and a tangible relief. Now whatever comes next is up to me. (I don’t delete the good ones.)
So, I said that I didn’t want to get into the question of whether we should publish work posthumously that the writer wouldn’t have wanted published in life (there’s no right answer) but let’s quickly touch on some hard truths: The Acker of these emails is largely ignorant when it comes to race. She self identifies as a ‘dyke’ in a way that might be very mid-90s but is so not 2015 or 2016. (“…whoever I end up sleeping with, male female no one etc., I’m always going to be dyke identified. It’s political, ‘cause I’ve gone through so much and women have and do go through so much shit and often don’t emerge.”) She doubles back on her feelings like women in business meetings. (“What bothers me. i.e. has the potential to bother me, bother isn’t the right word, is when things aren’t right between us. I’m not saying this properly, I’m using clichés, oh well….This is all said horribly and with no attention to problems of identity, self and other…”) In other words, in these emails Acker presents a version of herself that due to the fact of her death she is unable to curate, retract or build upon. This is the worth of these emails. It’s also an unavoidable uncomfortableness.
The thing about curation is that it is everything to a person. I go to the funeral of my friend’s grandfather and come to the conclusion that who we are, in essence, is made up of three things: how we curate ourselves publicly, what others think of us, and how we think about ourselves in the privacy of our own brains. Without the ability to self-curate, we lose a third of ourselves. Online, I am a version that is less neurotic, more adventurous. This is dishonest. I tell my beloved things that nobody else knows; am vulnerable to the point of fault. This is honest.
But worse, not only is Acker refused the right to choose whether her “work” is published at all, she’s refused the right of context. However (and here’s the crux of the issue, what I really want to talk about) Viegener and Wark are free to edit themselves (and, yes, Acker), to present the light that paints them most fairly, to omit whoever and whatever strikes their fancy. If this had been a collection of emails between two dead writers, the line in the sand would appear to be much more clear. Instead, it’s easy to get the sense while reading that Viegener and Wark – particularly Wark – are pounding themselves on their backs. Bravo, men, you’ve done it, you’ve actually done it – cut yourselves a hearty heaping of the cultural capital cake, minced around the real truth, the real meat of the thing.
That’s not to say it’s men alone doing this re-shifting. What about Chris Kraus, who, in the Believer piece ostensibly about the collection of correspondence but more specifically a mini-biography of Acker ‘Discuss Rules Beforehand’ fails to mention two things: her own involvement as publisher (I’m Very Into You is published by semiotext(e)), and her own appearance in the collection itself. (“It’s that damn Sylvère [Lotringer]. The moment his marriage breaks up, he phones me. A few months ago… Then begins talking about his wife-ex-wife, Chris Kraus. How she needs a boyfriend….” Acker writes.) Is an absence of honesty dishonesty by default? This absence might not be an ill-intentioned one and in fact probably isn’t, but it is deliberate. “Wark’s agreement to publish the correspondence, the reading of which, Viegener reports, one unnamed contemporary compared to “rooting around in someone’s underwear drawer,” shows a tremendous commitment to contradiction and truth and to the cultural works that embrace it,” Kraus writes for the Believer, without unpacking any of the nuance that comes attached to such a commitment – without unpacking exactly what Wark has agreed to, what Wark was gaining from such an agreement, and what Wark had the privilege to withhold. All reviews of and responses to the collection focus on Wark’s bravery, his honesty – without dreaming to peek behind the magic curtain. Is it bravery if it’s on your own terms?
Still, Kraus at least on some level understands the ethical components to the publication of the correspondence and the divide between honesty and dishonesty that pervades the collection (“Writing in the first person about her encounters with recognizable lovers and friends, Acker was frequently praised for the “vulnerability” of her remarkably transparent style. But it was a constructed vulnerability. Her texts and her persona were ingeniously controlled and conceived…. The awkwardness of the correspondence is truly awkward…”) but fails to make the next logical leap, and more importantly fails utterly to address her own complicity within said publication. It’s true that there is a subtlety to what Acker chooses to expose. (“They are the secret characters in all my essays and the book. Only I know where the bodies are hiding in the text”) So why then should we not expect from those responsible for this work a similar vulnerability, a similar play at honesty to the one they’ve inflicted upon Acker?
(At the keynote address for The Fifth Biennial International Conference of the Contemporary Women’s Writing Association in 2014, which I had the pleasure of attending, Kraus spoke biographically of Acker and her own upcoming project on her – as though Acker remains solely a figure from history and/or literature, and not someone she has shared a lover with.)
It is this more than anything that is hard to reconcile: not Acker’s vulnerability but the lack of vulnerability on the part of everyone else. This collection of correspondence just fell into our laps. What we did with it next really had next to nothing to do with us. Some emails got lost. She wouldn’t have wanted this published, and we don’t care, but we also don’t want to talk about how we don’t care.
But ultimately it’s this confusion of reality – what is real, what is performance (either Acker and Wark’s performance in the moment of sending the emails themselves, or a posthumous performance on the part of Wark, Viegener and co) that makes I’m Very Into You so valuable. It’s not the most honest collection of emails – but in pretending to be, it becomes so much more than the sum of its parts. Because the confusion between honesty and dishonesty, reality and unreality is what defines (more than anything else at least) e-correspondence itself.
It’s easy to be in obsessive love with someone when your schedule is perpetually cleared and you and they have unrestricted access to a computer. Days bleed into nights and you’re still talking. The lines between who you are and who they are cease to matter. I’m constructing a version of myself that is loveable to them. Everything that isn’t talking to them is waiting to talk to them. There is nothing else.
“It’s been so strange, not writing to you for, what? 72 hours?” Wark writes. “I’m weirding out from not emailing with you,” Kathy replies. “I miss you.” The navigation of this virtual geography (as both Wark and Acker refer to it) is what characterises e-correspondence, and seeing it take shape in the early days of the internet is thrilling. Reading them, there’s an intense familiarity, as though email could be its own language, and one you always think you’re the only one who knows how to speak – you and your correspondent, anyway. When Acker says she’s “Emailing you as if you’re my junk” I know exactly what she means. How is it that I can be nostalgic for a time I was never a part of? But I was. Probably everyone reading this was.
The truth is that these interactions are a shaping and re-shaping of self, and to crticise Wark (or Viegener, or Kraus, or anyone) for exercising their right as someone living to perform this self-moulding would be disingenuous because, of course, we all do it. We become someone more cultural, more in the know, more casually unaffected when we have the power of virtual anonymity (even with someone we know “IRL”) that comes from trying to touch lives together through a screen.
I never fall out of love with this person fully. The feelings that come from getting to know someone in such an un-distilled way are lasting. I think about writing about this person. I try this out like trying on shoes. It almost fits. This person is still alive and I want to vomit from the responsibility I have to something living. If they died, I wouldn’t just write a book about them. I’d write seven. I want to use them and I will use them if they’d just give me the chance (by dying). What does exploitation feel like? What shape does it take?
We all delete emails, pretend relationships were more valuable at the time than maybe they were, name-drop, pretend connections never existed, sweep the unsavoury under the e-rug, empty trash. We don’t all publish our trash in book-form though – so who’re the dishonest ones, again?
Sian Campbell is a freelance writer and Co-Director of the National Young Writers’ Festival. Find her work in Kill Your Darlings, Voiceworks, Spook, Going Down Swinging and Junkee.
Image via Electric Literature.