Honesty in Writing
There are things we’d all rather not remember, and certainly don’t want to find ourselves writing about: our sad childhoods or pathetic teenage years, our failed marriages or disastrous career experiences. And there’s no reason, unless we particularly desire to produce a misery memoir, or are writing for self-development purposes, that we should go into those murky, painful areas.
On the other hand, there’s something profoundly dishonest about turning our backs on public, rather than private, history. And something that a contemporary recently mentioned to me in an email made me think about this in a very specific way. Having a couple of weeks of doctor prescribed ‘not doing much’ gave me a chance to test my understanding of this particular area of the past and what I found (which is, of course, random, a limited sample, and possibly not representative of contemporary literature as a whole) rather depressed me.
Here’s the thing. I was born in the sixties – too late to be a flower child, but young enough to be infected with many of the hippy generation’s beliefs. I grew up with the developments of that era: the contraceptive pill, equal rights for women, rampant consumerism to name but three that emerged through my teenage years and twenties. And like many of my contemporaries, both male and female, I was sexually hedonistic, amoral and what would now be called promiscuous. Back then we called it having a good time. And we did.
The thing about sexual hedonism is that, by and large, it takes more than one person to experience it. And, like all those university students who sat in pot-smoke filled rooms, listening to folk music, in the generation above mine, I could name names. If I was there, so were you, and you and you …
So why aren’t you writing about it? Current morality requires safer sex, that’s sure, and those of us who didn’t end up with an STD or HIV (and, surprisingly, most of my generation were lucky enough to get away with it) may now regret what we did for other reasons, but that doesn’t wipe it off our histories. Like the US Senators who deny smoking pot (or snorting/ingesting/injecting worse things) our denial deprives our children of the chance to learn from us. It gives them no resource to call on. It leaves them believing that they must make discoveries for themselves because we never went there, or did that, or felt bad (or good) about it.
To be blunt, I’ve never regretted a moment of my past. Sexual hedonism, in a guilt-free atmosphere, when you are both desiring and desired, is one of the most powerful periods of life you can experience, because it is an integrated experience involving body, mind and emotions and provides, if you’re lucky, absolute gratification in pretty short order. Even when I can’t remember the names of the people I had sex with, I remember the actual sex with great fondness. I know that this is not true for everybody, and from time to time I find myself listening to a litany of woes from somebody (usually male) who regrets his Lothario past and wishes he’d learnt to be a considerate man rather than a profligate lover. Sometimes it’s the other side of the equation entirely – those people who didn’t, or couldn’t or weren’t welcome to join in, who tell me how their young selves were scarred by rejection or denial or outright prejudice. While I can’t enter into either experience, I can at least empathise with the different facets of what it meant to be one of that generation and to have a different path through our sexual jungle.
But what I can’t forgive is the way that this period seems to be wiped from our literature. Perhaps I’m just not reading the right books, so if there’s literature out there that admits that young people in the sixties and seventies were at it like rabbits, regardless of their later regrets, please tell me. Because I’ve been looking for it, and I can’t find it, and that makes me sad. And I’m wondering – if I’m right about its literary absence – if we don’t write it, or publishers don’t publish it, or readers don’t want to read it? And I really can’t believe it’s the latter.