In the early 1970's, during the "me decade," I wrote several letters to the writer Anais Nin. After sharing with her some juicy tidbits of my "affairs" and nuggets of my wisdom (acquired at the ripe old age of 20), I demanded to know the intimate secrets of her life. Nin's six-word reply was scrawled on a purple postcard. Then, I took her scribbled note to be the gospel truth. Now, because Nin's diaries about her life are remembered more today than her critically acclaimed fiction, this message seems laced with irony. "The answer is in my work," Nin wrote in response to my attempt to break through private boundaries.
Of course, as writers and creative artists, we select what to reveal about our personal lives in our journals, Facebook pages and interviews. I'm happy to reveal that I'm a slob; I love being campy; but hate camping in tents in the woods; vegetables and I struggle to be friends; I procrastinate doing things I don't like; I talk too much; I repeat myself; I'm never as empathetic as I should be; and just last week I ate two babies for lunch (kidding).
But you or I telling the world about me would be different from others writing biographies of us. Then, we'd be sitting ducks. No matter how hard we'd try or what legal action we would take, we couldn't stop others from penning our bios.
Take the late J.D. Salinger, the fav writer of myself and nearly every sentient being on this planet. He was able to stop biographers from quoting from his letters or gaining entry to himself or his circle. Yet, "J.D. Salinger: A Life" by Kenneth Slawenski is hot off the press.
Poor Jerry. Since it's so well-known, I won't go into the by turns, creepy, sad and disappointing stuff that Slawenski's and other bios (not to mention his daughter's and Joyce Maynard's memoirs) tell us about his life. Except to say: I'd love to bump into Holden Caulfield or any member of the Glass family at my local coffee shop; but would be creeped out if I ran into Salinger at my neighborhood pub.
Holden, Bessie, Franny, Zooey and even their cat Bloomberg all have their quirks. But they weren't the paranoid recluse that Salinger became by the end of his life. By then Salinger "began to ignore not only mail sent by strangers but also letters from family and friends," Slawenski writes.
The world was cruel enough when everything was about me – when life was "Our memoirs, Ourselves." Now, not only are we in a Sargasso Sea of our autobiographies, tweets and blogs about our diets, love affairs, crimes and cats – we're under an avalanche of your tweets, weight-loss programs, hook-ups, frauds and pets. And, you're not even pushing the myriad minutiae of your inner lives on us. We inflict them on ourselves by compulsively reading your biographies (which you, most likely, wish hadn't been written).
Bios are an addiction for which there has been and likely will be no rehab, AA or recovery. "Biography is the opiate of the literary world," says my writer and photographer friend George Covington.
"What really knocks me out," Holden Caulfield says in "The Catcher in the Rye," "is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though."
We know Holden is right. At bottom, we don't expect writers, painters, movie stars, playwrights or other creative artists (certainly famous artists) to be our buddies–let alone our "terrific" friends. We're all too aware that, as is usually the case with ourselves, artists' personal lives won't have the greatness–the art--of their work.
Recently, a poet friend said I went on too much about my woes. "You work so well with compression in your poetry," she said, wondering how I could be so verbose in my life.
I was going on way too much about my travails and I'd never claim to be a great poet. Yet, I was surprised that my friend, a good critic of poetry, expected my life to be like my art.
But now that I think about it; I shouldn't have been surprised. Most of us, myself included, expect creative artists to be tied in life to what they are in their art. We want Salinger to be Holden Caulfield; Louisa May Alcott to be Jo March; and Mark Twain to be Huckleberry Finn.
That's what keeps us reading biographies. We know (on some level) that we'll be grossed out, saddened or bored–but we keep dipping into the muddied waters of our beloved creative artists' personal lives. We hope against hope that the connection between life and art in our creative icons will rub off on us.
One night when I was a teenager, my father said at dinner, "Did you know that Clark Gable had false teeth?"
"Eew!," I said, "I never wanna see 'Gone with the Wind' again!"
"You could take it that way," my Dad replied, "or you could think about how well he acted to be so handsome in the movies."
I have to go now. I'm going to cringe, but I can't wait to get back to "J.D. Salinger: A Life."