Now that I’m writing a memoir of my life, I have to admit that sometimes as I write I feel that I am performing my own life. You know: like a performer up on stage singing or dancing with emotions blazing.
I wrote a dissertation years ago called Performing Identities. Actually the full title is Performing Identities: The Spectacle of Multiple Identity in American Women’s Poetry. Although I once lived and breathed this project, I had to look up the title for you as I no longer remembered it. Searching online, I discovered it’s available at three whole libraries–in their archives and, in one case, in their “rare book room.” (Even writing that I am laughing at the thought). I don’t know if the durn thing has ever been read (other than by my dissertation advisors and my friend Wilma Kahn who edited it), except by my parents who thought there were some disgusting passages (especially quotes from Sylvia Plath’s journals about–and I kid you not–nose picking).
That thought reminds me of that Seinfeld episode where Jerry’s girlfriend dumps him because she suspects him of picking his nose. Actually, there is a Seinfeld episode for almost everything, and I am always quick to remember them. I think of comedians as writers who take performing to the nth degree.
Back in grad school, as I read poetry, I saw that poetry seemed to be the performance of identity–where the poet tries out masks composed of bits of her own identities. I studied the work of symbolic anthropologist Victor Turner who argued that our very lives are performative, so it wasn’t a big step to notice the performance aspect of writing.
But I never felt like I was performing when I wrote poetry or lit crit. Writing my memoir I am engaged in the act of performing my life. It’s as if I stand on stage acting out a part written by myself which I have already lived. What an odd feeling. And yet it’s a feeling of engagement and with it comes a little hint of stage fright.
I started thinking about this subject after blogger Michelle at The Green Study wrote a post which features this marvelous quote: “Writing is a marvelous human endeavor, but to try and suss out the actual human is an exercise in futility.” She argues that we shouldn’t believe that a piece of writing is the writer herself. And I agree with her. For instance, it ticks me off when people read Plath’s poetry as “the true story of Sylvia Plath.”
But the memoir writer does take bits and pieces and large swaths of herself and uses them to create the personae or identities she uses in her work. The work itself performs these identities, making the identities live just as a puppeteer brings the puppets to life.
I wanted to share something I found when I searched online for my dissertation. There is a website called Classify, an experimental classification web service. It made a pie chart of the contents of my dissertation. That means a little scrap of all that work resides on the internet ;).