where the writers are
The elephants in the room

The other evening I happened to catch a ‘House’ rerun; although I generally avoid this show unless I’m in full-on TV withdrawal, this episode had a terrific storyline to kick off some blog entries on writing the taboo, forbidden and dangerous.    

An editor at a party celebrating the publication of his author’s collection of stories suddenly begins to say aloud whatever comes into his head – the current state of sales of short story collections, as well as the abilities of the author relative to the greats who preceded him.  And it just gets better (or worse) after that.          

A diagnosis of brain damage to an area near the brainstem renders corrective surgery a real nail-biter; the operation is a success, after which the editor returns to acceptable social norms.  Along the way, however, he alienated his wife and daughter.  The final outcome is up in the air; I figure everything works out in TV land.

Wilson, a terrific Noel Coward to House’s caveman-with-club, tells House, “And you led me to believe you were a one-of-a-kind.”  Not only is House not one-of-a-kind, but I’d wager that most of us would relish a 24 hour period of disinhibition, when we could say and do whatever we wanted, without any consequences, of course.  


What is dangerous writing?  It’s writing about the elephants in the room.  It's less about the author's vulnerability - at least for me - than it is about brutal honesty and truth as we perceive it.  While House’s patient indulged in expressing some of the baser thoughts in his psyche, he wasn’t spouting the truly raw stuff.  There is a large area that fits between the unfiltered, the crass and the socially acceptable that makes for brave and honest writing about ourselves and our humanity.  Dangerous writing may expose our vulnerability, but it may also offend - not just us but the powers that be.  What becomes clear in this episode of House is just how vulnerable the patient becomes, an interesting twist to the story.    

So why do we shy away from writing, publishing, and reading the taboo?  If I don't write with emotional honesty, I deprive each of us the understanding of the commonality of our experience – whether that experience is frightening, such as illness, or construed by our culture as unacceptable to feel.  A human being cannot unfeel what they feel, although there are consistent pressures and experiments toward that end (Ted Haggard’s story is an example); we don't have to act on our impulses, but we must acknowledge that the impulses exist.  

The best writers express this knowledge and these feelings to create the best in literature, even if these leave us raw and uncomfortable and wanting to turn away from the experience.


For the moment, I’d like to resurrect two novels I hold dear: ‘Sophie’s Choice’ and ‘Lolita,’ and recommend one new one, ‘The Vagrants,’ by Yiyun Li.  

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I saw that episode too (for some reason my wife and I have become House addicts over the last couple of weeks) and thought it was a fairly interesting story.

I also, and coincidentally, came to the conclusion that a piece of memoir I am writing needs to have that kind of honesty if it is to do the work that I think I want it to do.

Anyway, best to you,