Monday, March 19, 2012

Selling Out Everyone You Love: The Ethics of Writing Nonfiction (AWP Conference Panel II)

Joan Didion said that writers are always selling somebody out. How do the authors of memoirs walk the thin line between truthful disclosure and betrayal of trust, and what responsibility do they have to loved ones who appear in their work? Four authors talk about how they've grappled with these questions, the consequences of their choices, and the lessons they've learned. -- AWP catalog 2012

"Keeping up appearances is my family's religion,"  said panel facilitator Krista Bremer, who cited god, sex, money, depression--even baldness and other banalities--as taboo topics. Add a woman's voice, for "women were supposed to hover like angels around men."

Aboriginal wall paintings, Australia
The essayist couldn't ask her father's permission to publish what she was compelled to write, but his reaction--anger to the point of threats to sue--haunts her still. "Always assume everyone will read what you write," she said. You will deal with the aftermath long after the printed words hit the recycling bin.

"Truth is half of the equation. Compassion is the other," she said. Considering the ability to write a gift, a call to service, we must ask ourselves what is the most life-enhancing choice--neither allowing the continuation of abuses through silent condoning nor using words as weapons against those who may have hurt us.

"To read about the self in someone's work, it's like failing a test you didn't know you were taking," said Stephen Elliott, editor of The Rumpus (where you can read his excellent essay Why I Write, in which he states "There was truth to what my father was saying; I had mythologized myself at his expense. But there were also things [he said] that were simply false").

The author of seven books, including The Adderall: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism and Murder, said, "You don't have to sell out anyone, but you have to be fair." By that he didn't mean pretend to be noble or force forgiveness: "Art is selfish, not a noble calling." But he warned writers not to invalidate the feelings of those written about.

People, generally speaking, don't see us the way we see ourselves. They tell us to write anything we want, good or bad. But, Elliott said, they don't mean "write about traits I didn't know I had."

His advice? Change people's identities and note it in the preface. Of course, this works best for ex girlfriends or public figures, not mothers or brothers whose relationship to you can't really be disguised. Another option: Let them read the section that contains them. Often people who protest their own treatment want to be in the essay or book when it's suggested they are deleted from it.

Featherknoll Farm, northern California
Lee Martin, Pulitzer Prize winning author of fiction and memoir, claimed that the writer sells himself out, not others. He began as a fiction writer, but when he published his story, "Small Hands," based on his aunt's telling about his own father losing his hands in a farming accident, she responded that he'd betrayed her and she'd never tell him anything again.

"You can never trust a writer," said Martin.

He never meant to write creative nonfiction until he had to teach it and thought he'd better try. From Our House is his memoir, also about his father's severed hands and how as a boy he grappled with his father's "deep and abiding rage" in his home on the farm: "I  knew his hooks as intimately as I ever knew anything about my father.”

When he started writing memoir, Martin "closed out all thoughts of what others might think." He said the genre is "as much about the future as the past" in that to become whole you have to be honest (with yourself and others). To do this, the writer must "interrogate motivations, reside in the world of contradictions, and be willing to say it all--no matter..."

The reader, after all, feels cheated when the writer holds back; we must push past the place of discomfort to reach that complexity and reveal the self.

Poe Ballantine, author of the forthcoming Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere, lived "in the safe world of fiction" until he wrote an essay for The Sun Magazine and realized the power (and payment) of the personal essay. Since then, he has thought of nonfiction writing in terms of being of service to an audience--giving others meaning. When he writes, he considers, "Maybe this essay will help others whose lives are in ruin."

motel room romance ruins, Bahia, Brazil
Cheryl Strayed, author of the forthcoming memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, as well as Tiny, Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from "Dear Sugar" (July 2012)--from her Rumpus column, advocates writing fearlessly. (Or, as she says famously in her column, like a MotherF*#&@*#!) Fear is ever-present when you weigh what you'll risk by exposing the self and what the cost may be to others when revealing information. Family rules often include not talking about truths, or painful things, she said.

But it's our job as writers to do it, to "excavate the self to illuminate the human condition." Put more of your Self on the table, she encouraged. Show sides of yourself you'd rather keep private. Tell what is necessary--not to convey others, but to illuminate the self.

She advised, depending on the writer's relationship with individuals they write about, negotiating or even asking permission--"depending on their relationship to art and art-making," she qualified, as she did in writing her essay "The Love of my Life," featured in The Sun. Some people she doesn't write about, such as her kids whose privacy she respects.

If in doubt, she said, don't write from a place of exposure but a search for truth. Ask yourself what purpose the telling serves.

1 comment:

Arletta Dawdy said...

Thanks for reporting on the conference, showing us how to make the most of it through sharing your experience.

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