Finding The Themes. And Wisdom

Blushing, or rather a feeling of discomfort, can be more of an asset than occupational hazard for writers. One of the main reasons for that is because such unpleasant feelings can help us decide what we should be writing about. Karl Ove Knausgaard spoke eloquently about this in his interview for Paris Review:

[C]oncealing what is shameful to you will never lead to anything of value. This is something I discovered when I was writing my first novel, when the parts that I was ashamed like a dog to have written were the same parts that my editor always pointed out, saying, This, this is really good! In a way, it was my shame-o-meter, the belief that the feeling of shame or guilt signified relevance...

This idea of shame as a reliable barometer for writers is powerful. The shame-driven ‘relevance’ Knausgaard talks about is what constitutes the themes of great literature – internal conflicts, so-called ‘immoral’ desires, childhood wounds. Such material displays the kind of human experiences that we don’t normally discuss during our daily social interactions yet are intrinsic to our species.

The more intelligent readers, I dare say, turn to literature precisely in order to contemplate what it really means to be a human, in all its darkness and confusion and complexity. As Maureen Corrigan, the American literary critic, writes in her bibliomemoir Leave Me Alone I’m Reading:

What we readers do each time we open a book is to set off on a search for authenticity. We want to get closer to the heart of things… a few good sentences… [that] can crystallize vague feelings, fleeting physical sensations, or, sometimes, profound epiphanies… In our daily lives, where we’re bombarded by the fake and the trivial, reading serves as a way to stop, shut out the noise of the world, and try to grab hold of something real, no matter how small.

To write books that do all that, we must disclose exactly the kind of stuff we’re embarrassed about, or even ashamed of. American author and educator Robin Hemley writes in this vein in his excellent book on writing, A Field Guide for Immersion Writing: Memoir, Journalism, and Travel: ‘To write about the world without putting on the table your biases, your psychological indigestion and unhealthy sleep patterns, is in a sense to falsify…’

By being honest about our lives and feelings we can add a ray of light to illuminate the real, rather than idealised, continuum of what it means to be human. We can offer wisdom to our readers.