Confessions & Confidences
with Elizabeth Kaye
On Writing Memoir
Byliner: You have spent the majority of your career as a writer profiling and writing about other people. What made you decide to shift to writing about yourself?
Elizabeth Kaye: I decided to write about myself simply because I’d written so much about others. I had always regarded writing a profile akin to apprehending and solving an intricate jigsaw puzzle. Your subject gives you bits and pieces, which you then seek to configure into a coherent whole. That process has always fascinated me and I thought it would be a worthwhile challenge to apply whatever puzzle-solving skills I’d acquired to myself. And it was.
Also, I believe in the Socratic dictum “the unexamined life is not worth living.” For that reason, I have long believed that everyone should write about themselves!
Byliner: Autobiographical writing can be an act of preserving memory, organizing or examining experiences, and perhaps coming to terms with the past. How did you approach your own writing?
Elizabeth Kaye: Writing about yourself is a brazen thing to do and I sometimes wonder if it’s the ultimate act of ego or of self-abasement. What I do know is that imposing a narrative on your disparate experiences has the potential to bring cohesion and sense to them. It is a way to preserve memories and also to discover meaning and value in them that you may not have perceived when they occurred.
By the time I wrote Seven Men I was familiar with another significant benefit of writing memoir and that is the healing nature of it—something I discovered back in1995 when I wrote a book about my life titled Mid-life: Notes from the Halfway Mark.
For that book, and for Seven Men, I relied on a trove of notes I had amassed over the years: words people said, events I saw, the names of flowers I love, the look of the sky at sunset, lines of poetry, of songs… and on and on. I had made these notes because of the gnawing sense I share with most writers: that things do not fully exist until they are written down. These notes were invaluable when writing both books and, in each case, when the book was finished, I felt as if I had taken a drawer filled with memories and turned it upside down by way of emptying it. It was an unsettling sensation, but it was also unexpectedly liberating. Incidents and memories that had confused and troubled and even haunted me somehow no longer did. This convinced me that writing is a fairly reliable means of breaking with the past and making peace with it.
Byliner: You wrote your encounter with The Actor as fiction years ago. Now it’s a chapter in Seven Men. What made you come back to it?
Elizabeth Kaye: I never published the fictional version of my experiences with The Actor, which had served as a watershed event during which I became—as I write in Seven Men—thoroughly tired of myself and of the way I conducted the off-the-rails train wreck that had become my saga with men. It seems to me that in fiction, a male protagonist doesn’t need to evoke sympathy but a female protagonist generally does. Fictional men can be admired for being unsympathetic. Fair or not, I don’t think that’s true of the female protagonist. So although my time with The Actor does not cast me in a rosy light, I came back to it in Seven Men because I couldn’t honestly tell my story without it; I had to be willing to forfeit the reader’s sympathy if that’s what it took to be truthful. In other words, memoir is the act of full disclosure, whether it’s pretty or not.
Byliner: Memoirs are often written within the conventions of fiction—especially in terms of creating an authentic protagonist. How does that change when the protagonist is you? Are you faced with hard truths?
Elizabeth Kaye: Hard truths are the essence of memoir and I believe that the essence of hard truths is that character is destiny, that we make our own beds and if we find that we can’t sleep in them it’s up to us to rearrange the pillows. So a book in which the writer blames the travails of their life on anyone else is, to my taste, unenlightening and uninteresting. I’ve always felt victimhood is a tedious, tired, and dishonest stance. When I began writing this book, I determined that I would not place “blame” on anyone but myself. It’s not a book about how men did me in; it’s about my associations with the intriguing, difficult, glamorous men I came to know while seeking to fashion a viable and vital life, and the not-always-ideal ways in which I grappled with them.
Byliner: Is there a sense of detachment that needs to occur when you start writing about yourself and your own experiences?
Elizabeth Kaye: Yes. But in my case it was detachment from the reader, not from myself. I had to probe some disturbing memories and write about their emotional effects without censoring myself because I was fearful of what readers would think of me. I actually ended up cutting several treacly, self-serving passages whose subtext was: see, I’m actually a good person. I needed to dispense with a reflexive desire for readers to perceive me as “good” and settle for presenting myself as human, with all the frailties and foolishness and contradictions that implies. My hope was that readers would subscribe, as I do, to Dylan Thomas’s lovely assertion: “we are not wholly bad or good. Who live our lives under Milk Wood.”
It’s also true that I wouldn’t have written this book if it weren’t for my brilliant Esquire editor Will Blythe who has been a cherished friend since the late 1980s. I had told him many of these stories. He always thought they would make a fine book and I always said I would never write it. But he went ahead and pitched the idea to the e-publisher Byliner and then told me they wanted me to write it. I think at that point I was less wary of writing that book than with the prospect of letting Will down. So as I wrote it I allowed myself the comforting delusion that only Will would be reading the finished product. Had I ruminated on relaying this aspect of my life to a general audience I suspect I’d still be stuck trying to eke out the introduction.
Byliner: There is always a level of risk involved when writing about those you love, even when they are more disguised as fiction. In Seven Men, did you feel a stronger obligation to writing the truth or to protecting the image or memories of the people you wrote about?
Elizabeth Kaye: I protected the men by not naming them and identifying them solely via their profession: The Anchorman, The Astronaut, The Musician etc. But I didn’t protect myself. There would have been no point in writing the book if the purpose of it was to excuse myself for having affairs with married men, for leaving one of the best men I ever knew, for making a botch of my marriage. I didn’t flagellate myself either; I just tried to tell the truth and the truth is that I did what I wanted to do and it didn’t always yield the most felicitous or judicious results. There are a few stories in the book that seemed too personal and I considered cutting them. In fact, I wanted to cut them, but they were indispensable parts of the narrative so I left them in.
Byliner: After having written or published a piece/book, do you often go back and think of the ways you would have changed it—not just in the language, but also what you did or did not expose about yourself or someone else?
Elizabeth Kaye: The writing itself is something I’m always wishing I could change because presumably I’m still honing my craft and if that is so, anything I wrote some years ago is something I could write more gracefully now. I am careful about what I expose about other people and to this point I’ve not written anything about someone else that I deem to be too close to the bone, or unfair. One book that I very much want to write is one that I won’t write as long as people who could be hurt by it are alive. I believe it would be a powerful book but whether it ever gets written depends, at this point, on who outlives whom! Seven Men does expose me in ways that make me uncomfortable whenever I meet someone who has read it and who therefore knows so many intimate things about me that I was willing write and publish but would otherwise confide only to my dearest and most trusted friends.
But again, if you’re not willing to expose yourself in some fairly radical ways then it’s best that you avoid the rawness of memoir.
Byliner: How have profiles and coverage of celebrities changed since you first started writing? Do you feel that audiences expect to get an even more intimate look at the people interviewed?
Elizabeth Kaye: I think the primary thing that has changed is the access one gets to celebrities these days which is far less than it was when I was writing massive profiles for Esquire that we liked to describe as “definitive.” I spent months with subjects, observing them for a long time before I even began talking with them. That isn’t the practice anymore, though there are a handful of publications—the New Yorker being the best at it—that delve into their subjects in a considered and meaningful way. But most profiling seems to veer between the puff pieces and the gotcha ones, and in general the art of profiling – and it can be an art – has been degraded since the days when they were being written by people like Joan Didion and Gay Talese.
I don’t know what the audience expects. But I have strong feelings about what a writer should expect when venturing into writing a profile and that is to have enough time with their subject to amass the “bits and pieces” of reportage to which I referred earlier, and then to apply some intelligence to decoding them. In the end, that’s the writer’s primary task: to make sense of things. Of course, in writing memoir the “thing” you’re seeking to make sense of is yourself. And that’s a goal worth pursuing, which is why I said earlier that everyone should write a memoir. Or two…or even more because people change – often quite radically – with each phase of life and each of those phases is worth recording.
I remember being taken aback by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last line in his first book, This Side of Paradise, which was published when he was 23. The line is a lament: “I know myself but that is all.” When I read it initially, I was about sixteen with the usual adolescent confusion about who I was and I thought, isn’t knowing yourself an enormous achievement? I still think it is, and the act of writing memoir may not enable you to fully attain self-knowledge, but it’s certain to bring you closer to it.