Q: Why the title “By Her Own Lights”?
A: I’ve been reading Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of the Personal Narrative, and she uses two different permutations of that phrase in the first 60 or so pages of the book.
Q: A writer’s tick, perhaps?
A: Something like that. A good tick to have tho, I think. The first time she uses it is in reference to herself:
I began to see that in the course of daily life when, by my own lights, I act badly—confrontational, challenging, dismissive—I am out there on that raft before I have found the narrator who can bring under control the rushing onslaught of my own internal flux.
She uses the phrase to express self-implication (actually, the narrative persona she’s created for The Situation and the Story, a book about the importance of creating a narrative persona, uses the phrase). When left to her truest, her most intimate and unbridled self, she can and will be (among other things I presume) confrontational, challenging, and dismissive.
Q: So what does “by her own lights” have to do with narrative persona and dog food commercials?
A: In life when you have no narrative persona, no distance from your own instincts and reactions (ie, “by my own lights”)… it’s like one of those dog food commercials, where we are behind the eyes of the dog, we are the dog…hungry, sniffing like a maniac for food, so we can eat, so we can survive (and forget about it if someone or something gets in our way).
When you have a narrative persona (an effective one), he or she has a distance and a perspective that’s helpful and illuminating (i.e., “by her own lights”), you’re the “her” standing behind the dog holding the leash. You decide if and when it's best for her to eat. Psychotherapists call this the "witness." In Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now he tells the story of his spiritual awakening which comes via a statement “I cannot live with myself any longer,” followed by a question (and I’m paraphrasing), Who is the “I” that can’t live with “myself”?
A more succinct version: When you ask “Who am I?” who is the “I” that is asking?
In the context of essay and memoir writing, this might be the difference between writing in/from your anxiety, and writing about the person you are when you are anxious—being the dog versus being the owner of the dog.
Q: You mentioned a second use of the “lights” phrase in Gornick’s book?
A: Yes, she refers back to two writers she’s quoted earlier in the book—Sebastian Krim and Jean Amery:
Central to both Krim and Amery was that each one considered himself a failure because neither—by his own lights—had engaged with his own deepest self.
Despite their semi-abhorrent personalities, these two men, or their narrative personae anyway, have some semblance of a conscience (and consciousness), distance enough to consider the reader in their tellings, to be “real” with themselves and with us. And there’s honor in this.
Q: Does this excuse them from being reputedly unpalatable people off the page?
A: No, but I’m not concerned about who they are off the page. I’m concerned with how we create narrative personae (and the benefits for both writer and reader). And, most importantly, getting help with my own writing.
Q: So it’s purely self-interest [laughs]?
A: Yup. I (non-persona “I”) have been struggling with writing my capital “B” Book (a.k.a. my capital “M” Memoir), so I’ve been paying close attention to Gornick’s assertions. About a month ago, I got a good running start on the Book, two straight weeks of diligent daily writing. As I collected days and pages, I felt heavier each time I sat down to work.
I attributed this to the material—none of it that scandalous, but none of it super uplifting either. It’s not pleasant re-inhabiting a younger clueless version of myself—especially because I know what comes next and how ill-prepared that younger self is for what’s to come. It’s cringe-worthy. Embarrassing. Etc.
Even so, as I continued to write through the heaviness, I felt good, not about the project itself, but that I’d managed to write despite the heaviness. Unsurprisingly, I couldn’t sustain it. When you work out at the gym, it’s hard at first, then it gets easier, and feels good. I was just feeling worse and worse.
Then I read this in Gornick’s book about creating her first successful narrative persona:
I longed each day to meet up again with her, this other one telling the story that I alone—in my everyday person—would not be able to tell. Such a respite from the me that was me!…she had become the instrument of my illumination.
Q: How did it feel to read that?
A: A little envious, but mostly it inspired me. Kind of like being in a bummer relationship. If you’ve only ever been in a bummer relationship, you don’t realize that there are other kinds. If writing has only ever been hard and painstaking and somewhat torturous, you can go on assuming that’s the deal, and you spend most of your time battling that part of writing rather than exploring the alchemical potential of your material, of story, of image.
I’m determined to find that persona whom I look forward to meeting up with every day. Gornick’s assertion has become so large and attractive (and reassuring) that it’s shaken the shoulder of some new (or perhaps merely long-sleeping) narrator in me, who I hope will be able “to bring under control the rushing onslaught of my own internal flux.”
Q: What does all of this have to do with the new name of your blog?
A: At first I thought I’d use the phrase as my own silent thesis, but then I decided: Use it. Spend it. Now. On the blog.
To do something “by my own lights” means I’m muddling through something under the insufficient light of my own abilities (a.k.a. two lights are better than one, a.k.a. [only] by my own dimly-lit lights, a.k.a. with an insufficient narrative persona). BUT it also means I’m living by the light of my own experiences, strengths, choices—under the guidance of a strong, undamaged, fearless persona, who, hopefully, is also an excellent writer and storyteller. I’m hoping the blog, under that title, will be a vehicle for developing “her.”
That’s what. So…here we go.