Whose Story? The Ethics of Writing Memoir

I’ve been jittery ever since I found out my essay “The Saltwater Twin” would be published in Creative Nonfiction this summer. peering through curtainI know that’s the objective: I want stuff I write to be published, to be out in the world and part of conversations and all of that. But I don’t think about that while I’m writing, I just write. I sort things out, I investigate what troubles me, what makes me curious and what I don’t understand. Sometime later it sinks in that people are going to read what I wrote and that I’ve written about real people, living and breathing in the world, people who might also decide to read what I’ve written.

This is a new phenomenon. It’s not the first time I’ve mined my own life for material — I’ve performed self-revelatory, autobiographical poems and monologues in bars and tiny black box theaters in Chicago for years. But, as the audience for my work has expanded, my sense of responsibility toward the people I’ve written about has likewise begun to loom large. As a writer of nonfiction, it’s my job to tell the truth to be in good faith with my reader. (I believe with Mary Karr that “a writer makes a contract with the reader to tell the truth.”) But as a human being, I want to be in good faith as well with the people who happened to play parts in the stories I tell. When I published my first essay, my mother and sisters were required to sign waivers to the effect that what I wrote was true and that they wouldn’t sue the Big Magazine Company that published it for libel. (This, even though I’d changed all the names in the piece.) I worried for a minute that they wouldn’t want the story, which was a tough one about our family, in print – that they’d refuse to sign. But they all did. They all said they were proud of the writing – even my mother, who wasn’t happy with her portrayal – and that they thought it might do some good in the world.

I teach writing for a living. Basically I sit around and listen to people’s stories. I pester them with questions to get them to tell and write their stories down. I see over and over the way we make ourselves from stories. Each of us is the sum of the stories we tell (including those we only tell ourselves) about our lives. Those narratives are our stories; perceived and transmuted through our eyes and ears and skin. And I believe we own them. We have the right to tell them or keep them secret. I would bristle at the suggestion that I didn’t have the right to tell the story of something that happened to me. But it’s not that simple, of course. My stories are tangled with others belonging to other people – in easy loops and in knots tight as fists. I can’t tell mine without giving away theirs. I had a boyfriend once who was very upset that I shared stuff about our relationship with my girlfriends. I was kind of flummoxed by his discomfort.

“Are you going to tell them this?” he’d ask. “This?”

Yes. The answer was always yes. That’s how I process my life. I talk about stuff. (Also, I write about stuff.) I couldn’t see a way around that. To me there’s a difference between telling the story of something that happened between us and telling others something you told me about your life. The latter is your business and yours alone. The former is mine. If you’re in my life, you become part of my story.

Last summer I went to a family wedding. I’d heard that a couple relatives were less than pleased with the article I’d published about growing up in our family, but only one person spoke to me about it. I was ambling through the yard at the post-wedding brunch, nursing a mug of coffee and breathing in the green smells and river smells of the small New England town. It had been a weekend of stilted, polite conversations. This one would at least be honest.

“I wanted to talk to you about that article,” said this particular relative. “I really didn’t appreciate the way you portrayed me. That’s not how I see myself. That’s not all there is to me.” A group of guests walked by us and we offered those pinched smiles that pretend you’re not having a difficult conversation. The yard before us descended steeply to the road and farther down, the river we could hear below. The guests disappeared around the house.

“First of all,” I said, “Thank you so much for talking to me about it. I didn’t set out to hurt anyone. I wasn’t sure anyone would read it.” I told her why I’d included the scene she’d mentioned and why I felt it was important to the story. I said that I thought she had every right to feel upset about it and that it must have felt jarring to see a version of herself in print. I said of course I knew it wasn’t the full picture of who she was. I’d be upset, too, I told her.

“It’s my version of things,” I said, “It’s what I saw and felt; it’s not the whole story. But I think I have a right to tell it.”

My version of things is one person’s version. As such, I know it’s flawed. Objectivity when it comes to one’s family is probably hopeless, but I try, at least, to be compassionate and truthful.

Emily Deprang wrote on Salon last month about her decision not to publish a memoir about the disintegration of her first marriage. She had some interesting things to say:

“There’s a long, heavy conversation to be had about the rights and wrongs of writing other people’s stories, especially without consent. And I would never take away someone’s right to write about herself, especially since memoir is a genre where women and minorities often have a chance to speak for themselves instead of being “given a voice” by an established fiction writer or researcher. These days I’m a journalist, and I feel conflicted about reducing full, dynamic people to single moments in their lives — usually bad ones — or single aspects of their situations. Writing about someone always has a violence about it.”

A.S. Byatt put it another way, “However well you write about your family or friends, you diminish them.” When you write about someone they become a character. That’s kind of one of the points of my book. We tell stories that make sense of who we are, and the characters in those stories wax mythic as we tell and retell them. As a matter of fact, when I’m writing about my own life, I make myself a character, too. I have to create that distance from the day-to-day person I am. So, I write the real things that these characters have said and done and the ways we all are flawed and human. At the same time, I live in the world with real people I have to be accountable to when I close my laptop. I’m currently struggling through a chapter about friendship because, although I’ve changed names, I know people will recognize themselves should this ever come to print. How will my having written about my sometimes rocky relationship with a friend impact that relationship?

I don’t know how things will turn out. But for now, with apologies to ex-boyfriends, family and friends, I’ll keep telling these stories that are mine and that are tangled up with others. With all the empathy, candor and courage I can muster.

photo by Justin Henry
photo by Justin Henry

Read some interesting discussions about memoir, truth and responsibility here:

The Tell-all Memoir I Decided Not to Tell, Emily Deprang

The Liar’s Club: How I told my friends I was writing about my childhood—and what they said in return, Mary Karr

Collateral Damage: How I lost a friend and ex-lover by writing about him, Edmund White

Selling Out Everyone You Love: The Ethics of Writing Nonfiction 

Candia McWilliam, AS Byatt and the ethics of the memoir, Charlotte Higgins

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6 thoughts on “Whose Story? The Ethics of Writing Memoir

  1. I love this idea: “A.S. Byatt put it another way, ‘However well you write about your family or friends, you diminish them.’ When you write about someone they become a character.” I’ve often written about friends (mostly ex-girlfriends) and certainly my mother, who can’t defend herself as she is confined to a nursing home. And it saddens me that I do in fact diminish her, but this is where my writing at the moment is most real because she is such a big part of my life as I try to visit her as much as possible and I like to read her my stories, which at times, will include her. But, our meets are always much deeper when I can look into her eyes and she’ll listen to me. The other day however she said what I had written was too much for her. But, she’s always been the one I shared everything with. Perhaps, even my work has now become too much for the only person, who could love me no matter what.

    Also, funny you should mention it, but I have written about Mary Karr’s Liar’s Club: http://savioni.wordpress.com/2013/08/12/a-review-of-mary-karrs-the-liars-club-by-mario-savioni/

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    1. I think AS Byatt’s remark is interesting, but I haven’t decided if I completely agree with it or not. I suppose we do diminish real people somewhat when we write about them, in that a character lives on a page and in the imagination and not out here in the world, but I think we can still do right by our real-life characters if we pay attention and tell the truth.

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      1. When it comes to my mother she is an easy target because she is becoming someone else and the strength of that change becomes a philosophical problem. I love her deeply because she and I are a lot alike, but the traits we share are the ones, at least partly, things I don’t like about myself, which seem to have no relevance to a world that seems to become more and more capitalistic and thus inhuman and insensitive, where beauty and truth have less and less value to a world that is in constant compromise of the self.

        I see my mother slipping away and thus for my sake I pay close attention although there is less and less that I can do, because I cannot pick her up when she falls in the shower, for example, as she did recently due to dehydration.

        She doesn’t eat correctly and hates to drink water. And so I do diminish my mother by documenting her demise because a real son doesn’t share such personal information.

        Even if I tell the truth, I don’t think she would want me talking to others about her personal problems. And she could sue me if she wanted to. But, I think she has always loved what I do. She told me the other day that I have always done whatever I put my mind to doing. And I think she understands that as artists, we are given an image of the finished product or sense of the idea. The medium is present and the actual work. It is getting there and the discipline required to get the object to fruition that takes time and work. And because I have never made a living as an artist, just like my mother, she understands that the process is not personal but required.

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