“Multiplicity of the Self”: Kerry Clare, Mitzi Bytes

The problem with the multiplicity of the self — an idea that appealed to minds as wide-ranging as Virginia Woolf’s and Lolo’s, not to mention Cher’s — was that you never knew which part of you anybody was talking about. The problem with the multiplicity of the self was that there could be enough of you to get spread all over town.

I knew I wanted to read Mitzi Bytes as soon as I saw that it was being pitched as “a grown-up Harriet the Spy for the digital age.” Harriet the Spy was one of my favorite books as a child — though I discovered today that, to my dismay, I apparently no longer have my well-worn copy. I loved the premise of Mitzi Bytes: a pseudonymous blogger who gets “outed,” just as Harriet does, and then must disentangle herself from the consequences. And I knew I could trust Kerry Clare to tell a good story, one with wit and tenderness, but also with some bite, because these qualities are all on display at her excellent blog Pickle Me This, as well as in her conversations on Twitter, where we are what Sarah Lundy, the protagonist of Mitzi Bytes, might call “virtual friends.”

Mitzi Bytes did not disappoint: I enjoyed it from start to finish. Even better, I was interested in it, particularly in the questions it raises about voice, identity, and perception, and about how (or whether) we really know ourselves or each other. [Warning: though I’m not going to walk through the many entertaining twists of the plot, I’m also not going to avoid spoilers.] When the novel begins, Sarah believes that her identity is divided between the person she is “IRL” and the persona she inhabits on her blog:

Was Sarah Lundy Mitzi Bytes? She said she owned her words, but did she really? Once upon a time, Sarah had aspired to be Mitzi. She’d needed a life, so she’d invented one, and for a while, the two led the very same existence, one whose adventures she’d turned into stories because the stories were all that she had. But somewhere along the line, her two selves had diverged.

Sarah feels safe in her online anonymity because she assumes nobody she knows would recognize her in herself. But when her secret life is exposed, this comforting belief proves naive. Though some of the people in Sarah’s life have indeed been ‘Mitzi Bytes’ readers without identifying her, it turns out, for instance, that no pseudonym could hide her from her mother, and though her husband had no idea ‘Mitzi Bytes’ existed, Mitzi herself is perfectly familiar to him:

She said, “Do you hate me now?”

He said, “Because you’ve just revealed that you have a vicious streak, no compunction, are socially clumsy, and talk far too much about everybody else’s business?”

She said, “I guess so.” She got out from under his arm and moved away so she could see his face. . . .

“I didn’t know about the blog,” he said, “But I know you.”

And really, how could Sarah have so blithely imagined that her own voice would not speak for her, at least to those who knew what to listen for? What is a blog, after all, if not a kind of dramatic monologue in which, as always, character relentlessly reveals itself? “It was a world I recognized,” says one of Sarah’s friends after the story breaks and she reads the blog for the first time; “It was so totally you.”

Mitzi Bytes also highlights the impossibility of telling the story, rather than a story. Sarah believes that when writing as Mitzi she has only ever been honest, but as she hears from the people who became, unsuspectingly, her subjects, she is forced to acknowledge that being honest doesn’t preclude being partial. “I only ever said what I meant,” she writes in a belated apology, but the stories she told “only ever stood for a single side, a tiny sliver of a single side of that many-sided thing: The Entire Story. Life itself.” Her pseudonym freed her to describe “life the way I see it,” but it also shielded her from the obligation to consider how other people saw it, to weigh her own first-person narration against competing points of view. It is a narrative failure, in other words, with moral consequences, which the structure of Mitzi Bytes itself highlights as it alternates between Sarah’s plot (in 3rd person) and cleverly apposite samples from the ‘Mitzi Bytes’ archives. The blog posts are brisker and funnier than the ‘novel’ portions, but especially as we get to know the characters Mitzi blogs about, their skewering wit becomes increasingly uncomfortable, and it’s hard not to agree that Sarah’s angry friends have a point when they rail against her betrayal of their trust.

There’s a lot else that I appreciated about Mitzi Bytes, including its many deft literary allusions, from Harriet the Spy (the dumbwaiter!) to Unless (which I flatter myself I would have noticed even without a heads-up). I was also moved by its honest portrayal of Sarah’s struggle to retain her own sense of self after becoming a wife and mother. (For more about this topic, see the essay collection Kerry edited, The M Word.)

The aspect of Mitzi Bytes that I found most thought-provoking, though, was its treatment of blogging. “I just didn’t really see the point. Of blogs at all, basically,” Sarah’s husband Chris says to her as she’s making her confession to him about ‘Mitzi Bytes.’ Kerry wryly acknowledges that blogs are no longer the cutting edge medium they once were: “Blogs were for old people,” notes one of the teen-aged moms Sarah tutors, while her editor tells her bluntly that “Blogs aren’t big news anymore. Unless they’re dying.” Those of us who keep on blogging nonetheless do so for reasons that Kerry, via Sarah, does a good job explaining. Some of the anger directed at Sarah once she is outed as Mitzi comes from people not understanding the form or spirit of a blog and thus taking her posts as something more declarative than they are, or were ever intended to be. I think most bloggers would agree that a blog is always a work in progress, a place of intellectual exploration rather than definition. “To me,” Sarah-as-Mitzi writes,

this has always been the attraction of the blog, that it’s a place to record impressions of the innumerable atoms as they fall, to decipher the universe, assembling the chaos into a pattern of days, weeks, and years.

Blogging is open-ended in a way that allows for ongoing discovery: “the best posts,” as Sarah reflects,

began from a jumping-off point instead of with a careful route plotted on a map. Every time she posted, it was just a little bit an act of faith.

To me, that certainly sounds both familiar and true. I was thinking recently about why I’m not quite comfortable with calling my blog posts “reviews,” and that exploratory spirit is one reason. There are obligations in reviewing that, for me anyway, don’t exist for blogging, and while I craft and structure and revise reviews until they are just so, I usually start writing blog posts about books (including this one) with no specific plan except to reflect on my reading experience and see where it takes me. I relish that freedom, even though — or maybe because — it means the results are always a bit ragged or imperfect.

The division (however unstable) between Sarah’s “real” life and her blogged experiences also resonated with me, but in this case because my own experience of that split in identities is the reverse of Sarah’s. Because I blog under my own name, I have mostly avoided discussion of my personal life, for instance, including writing only occasionally and very selectively about my family and almost never about my friends. I think of ‘Novel Readings’ as a personal but also a public space, not a private one. Though I have certainly addressed some fraught issues (especially around my professional life) and some emotional ones, I think (though like Sarah, I may be deluding myself!) that by and large my online persona is better (more positive, more generous, more temperate) than I sometimes am offline. It’s not that my blog doesn’t represent who am I, but like ‘Mitzi Bytes,’ ‘Novel Readings’ represents only parts of who I am — the better parts, I usually think, though over the years there have certainly been slips. Though I can see the appeal of a blog where I could really let loose, as Sarah does when writing as Mitzi (and as some anonymous academic bloggers once did – remember “BitchPhD”?), I have come to appreciate the pressure to rise to my own standards here.

I think in a way that is the lesson of Mitzi Bytes— though I am reluctant to boil it down to anything that sounds so didactic: that you have to both own and live up to the person you are capable of being. By the end of the novel, the plot complications are mostly resolved but their emotional aftermath remains. Having to confront and then try, as best she can, to reconcile the different pieces of her life finally prompts Sarah to “show her face to the world” — her best face, if she can. It will be a work in progress, but this time an aspirational one, and of course, she’ll still “put it down in words,” because that remains the best way to find out what she means.

“A Book of All My Secrets”: The M Word, ed. Kerry Clare

mword

I got to a poem about us, about how quickly our children become themselves, and as I blithely read the poem over the air, my five-year-old daughter suddenly, breathlessly, began to sob. She was inconsolable. When my husband could finally calm her down enough to speak, she blurted out, “Mommy wrote a book of all my secrets.”

It seems appropriate to be posting about The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood on my son’s 18th birthday. Milestones like this inevitably provoke reflections: memories good and bad, nostalgic and bitter, celebratory but always (in my experience, anyway) more complicated than you anticipate — or might be willing to admit, at least in public.

That’s what makes The M Word so surprising, and also moving, gripping, funny, and, occasionally, really uncomfortable to read: the writers put it all on the table, all the confusion, ambivalence, difficulty, suffering, hope, despair, and insight that swirl around people’s different experiences with motherhood, whether they are or aren’t mothers, however motherhood is defined, and whether their situation arose from choice or accident, gift or tragedy. As many of the writers observe, there’s a popular public story about motherhood that is all bliss, smiles, and cuddles. For many of them, there is plenty of bliss, but that’s rarely the whole story and often not the story at all. The M Word doesn’t try to tell one story: it allows, even insists, on the coexistence of many different ones.

All of the stories are interesting, though I expect that for most readers, as for me, the intensity of interest will vary. Paradoxically perhaps, since I’m a mother myself, one of the essays I found most compelling was Patricia Uppal’s “Footnote to the Poem ‘Now That All My Friends Are Having Babies: A Thirties Lament,'” a mildly abrasive commentary on pregnancy and motherhood from the perspective of a woman convinced she does not want children. “Perhaps it is my workaholism that keeps me childless,” she speculates. “I know I would resent the time spent away from my computer and notebooks. I already do. I think our three cats are demanding, and I frequently have to shoo them away as they bat my hands while I type.” Although my decision about parenting was not hers, I understand her resistance to it, and I know she’s not wrong about the threat of resentment. Other essays, though, bring out parenting’s rich and varied rewards (which it is hard sometimes not to think of as compensations). Still others emphasize loss — Christa Couture’s heartbreaking “These Are My Children,” for instance:

Sometimes I feel my mothering is finite, or plays on a loop. I can replay both of my children’s lives to their conclusions in my mind, rewind, and play them again. There is no wondering what they will become.

And still others take up abortion, adoption, and infertility with the same frankness, offering the same unsparing emotional revelations.

The M Word is a very personal book. Is there a point at which writing about our own experiences as parents becomes an invasion of our children’s privacy? Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang’s “Mommy Wrote a Book of All My Secrets” is the only essay that directly confronts this question. I found it very thought-provoking because I have chosen to be fairly reticent about my children — and indeed all my family and friends — here. For one thing, Novel Readings is not meant as a confessional space: its focus is just different. I do write the occasional personal post, and I don’t try to keep the rest of the writing strictly impersonal. One of the things I cherish most about blogging is the freedom to be more openly myself while writing,whether about Christmas or about books.  But my private life remains private (or, you might say, my public presentation of my private life is carefully curated!). Crucially, I choose what to say about myself in this public space, and I don’t think I have the right to make that choice for other people by sharing their stories (or my perspective on their stories) — by turning them into subjects or characters in my story. Clearly, a lot of writers feel otherwise, including everyone who has ever written a memoir and many (such as Miriam Toews) who have written conspicuously autobiographical fiction. I’m not saying they are wrong to do so (and I have read and admired plenty of life writing of one kind or another), but I can sympathize with Tsiang’s daughter (quoted above), with her sense of injury at the unexpected exposure. I’m not sure I agree with Tsiang that this was her daughter’s “first lesson in the fact that you cannot love without exposing yourself”: maybe so, but it’s one thing to expose yourself to your loved ones and another to find your secrets broadcast on the radio. At least Tsiang learns a lesson too: “that it is both a responsibility and a privilege to write about the ones you love.”

There’s lots in The M Word that made me think — often about my own experience of motherhood, as a mother and as a daughter, but also about what I know my family and friends to have gone through, hoped for, lost, or celebrated in this context, and about experiences and attitudes entirely different from mine or theirs. When I picked the book up (motivated by knowing Kerry Clare as a Twitter friend and author of the splendid blog Pickle Me This) I was a tad skeptical: I didn’t think I was actually that interested in motherhood as a topic. I realize now that’s because I hadn’t given it as broad a scope as Kerry and her contributors do. The result is a collection that confounds expectations.