Not an Odalisque

Posts Tagged ‘privacy

Lies and Fictions

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Readers of this blog might wonder how much of what I write is true. I have a lovely unpublished comment from a time when I criticised someone with a serious following, accusing me of lying to pursue my own ends (unfortunately not elucidating what those ends are, which is a pity, as this blog could do with some ends). More of you will wonder whether I do the things I say I do. I admit that I tweak the truth. Sometimes I rearrange the order of events, more often I omit things to make a post clearer. I guess at the exact wording of conversations, and I play up emotions to give stories tension. Come to think of it, I do that last one in real life.

Telling the truth is easy when I’m the only one involved. With other people, it’s a bit trickier. Different people have different expectations of what is private and what’s public. Many years ago a girlfriend’s father had a spot of trouble after his secretary stole a lot of money and ran away. He had to give up his job, his daughter began to wonder whether he could afford her education. I told my best friend about it; my girlfriend was livid. Family troubles were private. She thought it so obvious that there was no need to tell me that.

In general, I take people’s preferences into account when writing or talking about them. I don’t publicise the address of the play partner who likes to keep his identities separate. I don’t tell you about the Lover’s deep emotional trauma from his stint in the Spanish Inquisition* I will tell you that he has a habit of putting dirty crockery on the draining board, which makes me want to hide forks in his shoes.** People’s preferences can’t, and shouldn’t be the only influence on how they are represented, though. Others seeing who you are and what you do is one of those unfortunate risks you take when leaving the house and interacting with people. If you spend the afternoon telling sexist jokes, I’m afraid it isn’t my job to check that you won’t be hurt when other people hear about it.

And that’s tough, because it applies to me, too. I wrote some time ago about a scene in which I failed to recite a poem I’d boasted about knowing weeks before, and was inordinately upset about my failure. Afterwards I asked the only witness not to tell anyone; I was ashamed, I didn’t want to be judged. He refused to keep my secret. Was I hurt? Yes. Did I dispute his right to tell the world about the incident which showed my arrogance and ignorance? No. I did go over the poem another couple of times, though.

In the blog, I tell the story, usually without the names, and given how few people I know in person read the blog, people’s privacy is relatively safe. It’s much more difficult in fiction, because fiction’s meant to be truthful and fictional.

I don’t know anything except from experience (and Hume). Perhaps you, as Descartes or Plato or Chomsky believe, know the nature of God or geometry or grammar from before birth, but I, sadly, don’t, especially the geometry, as my Maths teachers would testify. So if I’m going to tell you any sort of truth about the world in my writing, it’s going to have to be from experience. That isn’t to say that I’m going to write autobiographically. It’s called fiction for a reason, and I’m looking at you, Martin Amis, because I had to sit through your boring descriptions of Hollywood both in Money and during your long reminiscence at an author talk. Joining the dots between Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude and his autobiography, though, was more interesting, because everything had been shifted around and given a new meaning. Books don’t need to spring, fully formed out of your imagination. Down that road lies drafts of poems stuffed in hedges and fabricated persons from Porlock.

In fact, it’s probably best if you don’t write straight from your imagination. The two most boring types of narrative are purely imaginative: dreams and sexual fantasies. Don’t believe me? Go and look at the fantasy-sharing groups on Fetlife. Tell me if you manage to stay awake through three posts. Imagination isn’t bad. If you want to write (or dream, or even fantasise) about interplanetary war between 200 foot cat people and miniaturised mechanical penguins, feel free, but it won’t be interesting until you’ve used your experience to tell us what it feels like to be the 180 foot cat person, or what the penguins are really fighting for. And that’s because it won’t, otherwise, be truthful. Excuse me while I go and pitch that idea.

When you’re writing, though, what are the people around you meant to think? I use your boyfriend’s interesting career choice for a character who turns out to be a lying, cheating bastard. Am I accusing your boyfriend of that? No, it’s not him! So why not take out all the things that are like anyone I’ve ever known? Because the things I know are the only truths I have to share. And because in the case of a few lying, cheating bastards, I don’t mind if they recognise themselves. They aren’t going to sue, I’ve also put in that they have small willies.***

Writing, for me, in blog posts or fiction, is about trying to say something more than, ‘this happened.’ At the very least, I’m aiming at, ‘this happened and it was amusing,’ or even better, ‘this happened and it was a bit like something in your life, seen in a different way.’ That’s why I stand by my right to tell lies about myself, and truths about everyone else.


*Some details have been changed to protect relationships.

**In the interests of balance, I should probably share the fact that I, apparently, have no patience, don’t listen to reason, get crumbs in the bed and then complain about them, and let the plug hole get blocked up with rice.

***This is a lie for the purposes of humour. I haven’t done this at all, but I have admitted that I sometimes tweak the truth in blog posts. If you can believe me.

Written by Not an Odalisque

April 11, 2012 at 11:27 am

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Living With My Characters

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One of the things I love about writing is indulging my runaway imagination. It’s not daydreaming, it’s productive visualisation! Another of the things I love about it is the way that my own life can be cut up and stuck back together in different ways to create something much more meaningful (hopefully) than the original experience. The problem, I find, is when the two come together.

I didn’t realise that I could be a writer until I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s autobiography. I noticed that his magic realism was created by relating incidents from his life out of order and without the background information which would make them coherent, and I thought ‘I can do that!’ I don’t have to make something out of nothing; I don’t have to write in a vacuum. I can take characters and situations from my real life, and no one is going to brandish a manuscript at me shouting, “you’re not a real writer. You didn’t create this character, I can tell it’s my Aunt Marg!” In fact, my published friends tell me that Aunt Margs and their friends are excessively pleased to see themselves in print, to the point of deluding themselves that they are the models for characters they do not resemble.

So when I’m writing a story I sometimes pick a personal experience, which comes with its own cast of real people who I adapt to my requirements. Similarly, when I need a character, I often cast around my acquaintance for someone who fits the bill. Don’t worry, almost everyone is changed beyond recognition as I tweak and stretch them into who I need them to be.

All of this means that I spend a lot of time daydreaming about people. Add to that this fact: I haven’t had sex since January.

Don’t imagine that I am sad about my celibacy. I’m revelling in fresh-smelling sheets and the freedom to do what I want without having to notify anyone. I’m not even seeking casual sex, since I find myself a much more reliable provider of pleasure than almost anyone else.

That said, as I’ve mentioned in this blog before, sexual deprivation does lead me to notice sexual possibilities a lot more. And I, for the sake of my writing, have given my mind permission to go wandering off down these garden paths.

For example, there is a beautiful woman at my dance class. She is an excellent dancer. She is curvy, she has a pretty face and a tiny waist. She wears tight, tight dresses with low necklines and high hemlines. I don’t know how everyone else in the room is doing, but I have to make a conscious effort not to stare fixedly at her for the duration of the evening. And she’s the sort of girl where looking immediately leads to thoughts of touching.

I don’t know her name. I’ve never spoken to her, and I probably never will. I have, however, put her in a story. I wanted an object of forbidden lust for my main character, and there she was, ready-made and lust-inducing. She made it very easy to write the sex scenes. The only thing I worry about is my inability to look her in the eye. To be fair, it has always been difficult to drag my gaze up that far.

My imaginative investment in my mystery dancing girl has been productive. Sometimes, though, one thinks around in circles for a long time without working out precisely where the idea is going, and it never reaches paper. Such is the case with mystery dancer number two.

I have been told this man’s name more than once and forgotten it. One dances with a lot of men at classes and freestyles, and just to confuse you they change their clothes, sometimes halfway through the evening, and they often pop up at venues where you weren’t expecting to see them. I’ve given up trying to keep track. This man stuck in my mind because I found myself unintentionally flirting with him. The next week he flirted with me, while I tried to look demure. After that, I spent a week fantasising about him.

I don’t mean sexual fantasies. I always think it is a little rude to use real people as mental masturbation aids. A man once told me that I’d “given” him roughly thirty orgasms in a month. Not only did I think the numbers were probably inflated (did the man have no porn!?) and not only did I think that it demonstrated obsession rather than affection, but I also felt just a little violated. This is my body. If we’ve been together you’re entitled to the odd memory-wank, but this is icky. And, I imagine, sticky.

So I don’t mean that I settle down with my toy collection and conjure up images. In fact, it is much worse than that. I’ve invented a whole life for him: A history, hobbies and interests, friends and family members, a career, a taste for beef and beer stew, a best friend’s punky lesbian daughter. He’s taken me for days out at stately homes. He’s refused to come to a strip club with me as research for my novel. He’s invited me to dinner parties where I’ve been terrifically bored all night but made up for it by supplying a great breakfast. We had a terrible fight after I got uptight about the age gap, and he got angry with me for snogging his best friend’s daughter or smoking in his bedroom (it wasn’t entirely clear which, I’d done both), but we reconciled. He’s never taken me shopping, because he hates it so much. All of his bed linen is white.

So in my life there are two people about whom I know a set of real facts and a set of fictional facts. Both are important and relevant to me, but the fiction has a much stronger relation to my everyday life. One of them is already in a story, so I need to remember the fictions and add to them as she develops. The man may never make it onto the page, but he might, so I can’t abandon him yet, and in any case I am sure that he will influence some of my other characters. I don’t want to give him up.

Not only does this mean that I have to be very vigilant at separating the fact from the fiction when I do see these people face to face (enquiring after the health of imaginary family members would look foolish, for example), but I also have to guard against emotional indiscretions. When I saw my older man across the hall last week I felt a rush of affection. Then I remembered that he didn’t exist, so I avoided him for the rest of the night.

Do you find yourself living more in fantasy than reality? How do you maintain the divide? Let me know, just so I can be sure that I’m not fantasising my readers, too.

Written by Not an Odalisque

April 11, 2010 at 10:02 pm

Do You Know Who I Am?

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We all know that the internet is not a space conducive to anonymity. We are being watched. The state is looking for people involved in terrorism, child pornography, file sharing and probably the avoidance of parking fines. Advertisers want to learn about us so that they can sell us things more successfully, although I can hardly say that they do it very effectively, since Facebook seems to think that I am an overweight lesbian primary school teacher in need of several new mobile phones. Nevertheless, an impression of anonymity tends to persist. ‘The Psychology of the Internet’ by Patricia Wallace explores this. To simplify a book into a sentence, she argued that we separate our online lives from our ‘real’ lives, and therefore our online selves from our real selves. To some extent, we all live the cliché of the dirty old man lurking in the teenagers’ chatroom pretending to be a giggly girl.

I’m not sure that Wallace is right. We all have many selves which are expressed according to context. I imagine that I would behave in one way at a Women’s Institute flower arranging class and another at a swingers’ club. I’ve never had the pleasure of attending either, but from reports of acquaintances who have, required actions at one would be entirely inappropriate at the other. We modulate our expressions of ourselves during every minute of our lives, dressing differently for the office, the pub and the neighbour’s two year old’s birthday party. I even find my accent changing, the longer I spend in Yorkshire. This modulation is necessary, if only because otherwise you will surely shock your granny. Whether you see yourself as an integrated individual expressing different aspects of yourself, or a handful of postmodern fragments constructed from God-knows-what is a question which can wait until someone has written a clear and concise précis of Judith Butler’s work. That might take a while.

The internet isn’t a space separate from real life, my life is real to me if I am in it. Many parts of my life only become real after I have involved the internet. I haven’t successfully organised a meeting of three or more people without the intermediary of Facebook for some time. It could certainly be argued that Facebook, in which others have contributed to the picture of me as much as I have, is a more accurate reflection of myself than the image I would paint alone.

The internet does provide access to things which were previously rather difficult to find if, like me, you are bad at reading maps, or have lived with people who tore leaves out of the Yellow Pages. Most importantly, it is easy to find people who share your obscure interests. There was a time when finding fetish pornography, for example, must have been a bit of an operation. My town doesn’t have an adult shop, and although the newsagent stocks the usual range of top-shelf magazines, I don’t think you’ll find any Shibari rope tying in there. Perhaps you have the courage to ask the woman at the counter to order you something in. I certainly wouldn’t, so suddenly I would be on the bus into York, trawling for shops which step back from the pavement and hunch their shoulders under their raincoats. Once you’ve found one, glanced furtively around to check that you aren’t being observed by friends or colleagues, you can take a deep breath and go in. Advance past the rack of whips, cuffs and leather. Try not to give too much thought to the rubberwear, or ask yourself who actually buys polyester French maid costumes. Don’t get distracted by the intricacies of the strange eroticism of the Snow White outfit on the mannequin, you will have time to think about it later. Right now, just edge along until you reach the magazines. Don’t go too far, or you’ll be in the extensive gay section, and you don’t want to see what’s going on in there. Here you are. Three bondage magazines, take a copy and wipe off the dust. I know the man behind the counter is staring at you, and you would really prefer a dark corner to inspect your possible purchase, but, frankly, if you were a sex shop proprietor, would you provide dark corners for lurky men to paw at magazines? Just have a quick shufty under the strip lights. You’ll be fine as long as you don’t look up.

Stop! I told you not to look up, didn’t I? You didn’t think she was real, did you? Eejit! All I can say is that you’ve obviously never seen the real Tera Patrick in action. When you’ve stopped mistaking inflatable dolls for naked women, you’d better pick up all those vibrators you knocked over. Turn that big purple one off, while you’re at it. What, you want to leave? But you haven’t picked yourself a magazine yet. Are you sure that one will do? Well, if you want to pay for three just because you’re feeling self conscious, on your own head be it. Just get them bagged up properly so that no one knows what you’re carrying on the bus home.

Let us compare that experience to typing “fetish porn Shibari” into Google. You get 27,100 results which I’m not going to explore because that may take a while and I’m writing this for you. The chances are, though, that pictures of naked women and elaborate knot work aren’t going to be enough for you anyway. You want to find other people like you, with whom you can share this new, exciting side of your character. You could be part of a community, exchanging tips on the best knotting techniques, laughing at Shibari related jokes and maybe, if you are lucky, you’ll meet a girl and get to do some tying up of your very own.

It doesn’t have to be Shibari. I’ve wormed my way into online communities to do with writing, activism, Guardian-reading and BDSM. You may have chosen Scotty dogs and Morris dancing, but they essentially the same. You’ve found something you are vaguely interested in, and, because it was easy, gone for a poke about. You may or may not have stayed, but the internet is big enough, and people multifaceted enough, that I’m sure something will have caught your interest.

Perhaps your behaviour was a little erratic at first. On joining any sort of online community, from Twitter to Facebook to (I kid you not), you are in a new culture. You’ve come alone to the party, and there’s a chance you’ll get drunk and throw up in the host’s handbag. Since everyone at the party has a slightly different agenda, finding a model for your own behaviour can be difficult. At least, that’s the excuse I make for the dirty messages strangers send me on Facebook and Fetlife. There are some weirdoes out there, but then, there are Daily Mail readers out there, too, so what can you do?

If you are one of the Scotty Dog Lovers you are probably not too worried about being discovered. Some people I see online must fear discovery daily: married men looking for casual sex, criminals boasting of their crimes. I’m sure that most people are like me, they just don’t want their separate worlds to mesh. I don’t want my schoolfriends to know just how bad my poetry is, I don’t want my ex-boyfriends to see pictures of me on a bad hair day, and really don’t want my father to see the list of enjoyable activities which graces my profile on Fetlife. The separation of myself on different parts of the internet gives me a freedom of expression which I value.

The separating walls are beginning to crumble. It all started when an acquaintance from the National Novel Writing Month launch party took the very simple step of Googling the name I use on the NaNoWriMo forums. He was able to discover: my Writewords profile, including some writing; my Guardian Soulmates profile; and this blog. Now someone in my real life knows a little bit too much. He doesn’t know anyone else I know, though, so it’s ok. Then yesterday I got a message on Fetlife from someone who had originally seen me on Guardian Soulmates, asking if I would like to meet. I have begun to realise how difficult it is to keep my selves separate.

Since the beginning, I have relied on everyone’s indifference. How many people are interested enough to trawl the internet looking for traces of me? I have always thought that the number must be close to zero. Then I had a look at my own behaviour.
I regularly check the Facebook pages of people I haven’t spoken to in years. Who wouldn’t want to know if their ex-lover is dating someone better looking than them? Who wouldn’t want to know if the actor they had a one night stand with has made it big yet? I’m sure I’m not the only one who does this. Then there’s the obsessive researching of potential dates. Mostly you get a handful of mentions on out of date websites, but now and again you can learn a lot from published work or—joy of joys—their very own website. A friend pulled up my last boyfriend’s site the day before our second date. His academic writing was unexciting, the pictures of himself with his cat were slightly embarrassing, but his music was excruciating. We sat and listened to every track of self-composed tragedy and heartache. We cringed, we laughed, we cringed again, and then we asked each other why anyone would open their heart to such a degree in such a public forum.

In the light of all this perhaps I need to reconsider my assumption about the indifference of my acquaintance. Shall I bury myself under another couple of layers of anonymity, or shall I come out, to all and sundry?

Do let me know what you think.

Written by Not an Odalisque

November 27, 2009 at 10:59 pm