Thursday, October 7, 2010


When I was writing a personal essay about my first marriage at eighteen to a man I affectionately call PsychoTeacher, I sent a draft to my friend, Cynthia, in Texas. My family life as a child and teenager was fairly pickled in black humor (somehow it went with the martinis--my brother and I fought over the olives--and with the boiled tongue that lolled on a platter at the dinner table while my father stood, sharpening the carving knife).  This kind of humor being (IMO) one way families have of dealing with stuff that everyone feel-knows is there but no one dares to risk mentioning.  Because then it might all come crashing down.  Witty put-downs of other family members were quickly atoned for by even wittier (so it seemed) jibes at oneself.

I thought I'd nailed that essay. I'd finessed just the right droll irony to keep it humorous, yet painful. True to life! It was even fun to write!  But Cynthia in Texas didn't see it that way.  "The sarcastic humor is off-putting," she wrote.  "I think you need to go back and feel the pain."

The next two drafts were hell. I didn't sleep, remembered stuff I didn't want to remember, felt feelings I thought I'd left behind in that crappy little apartment with my flute that PsychoTeacher hid when I left.  "If I ever, ever, say I want to write a memoir," I told my husband, (my real, first husband, as I think of him) "Shoot me."

"Um," he said.

But I Went There.  That's the thing. In order to write stuff that's worth something, you have to go to the places you really don't want to go into.   And I found that with the fourth and fifth revision, it became just another piece of writing. "You're rockin' it," Cynthia in Texas wrote to me.  

So yes, sarcasm has its place. But as the poet George Herbert said, "Wit's an unruly engine/striking sometimes a friend/sometimes the engineer."  I'd say I came out of that writing cauldron somewhat the better. After all, the essay, My Charlie Manson, won a prize.  Now you can read it.


Catherine Stine said...

Your My Charlie Manson piece is amazing, not all smirks at all. I agree that there is a fine line between writing in a sarcastic tone and in being flip.

HelenQP said...

Thank you! ...Ah, but you didn't read the earlier drafts...then the language changed as I let myself feel. I guess sarcasm is also protective.

Rich Sidney said...

Please know that I remember as well, and that I always thought well of you, even though I didn't know the half of it.

HelenQP said...

Ahh.. thanks. We were all caught up in something bigger, something we didn't understand.