Is your creativity selling out someone in your life?
Joan Didion famously wrote that “writers are always selling somebody out.” Songwriters, painters, novelists and other creatives channel their life experiences when producing their art. Take my post on Tuesday, in which I passed along advice I heard at a recent writer’s conference about building a fictional narrative around a personal “flashbulb” memory.
Writers often write with the hope that the individuals who appear in their writings won’t discover that fact. I changed the person’s name, a fiction writer will say. I changed her ethnicity, or her sex. But as I explore this issue–which I’m thinking about examining more fully in my MFA critical thesis at the Vermont College of Fine Arts–I hear published writers repeatedly say that the people they write about do find out, often quickly after publication.
In the last few months I’ve questioned published memoirists and attended panel discussions on this question. I blogged about a panel on this topic at AWP for the online journal Brevity, and a week ago I attended a similar panel at the Conversations and Connections Conference in D.C. The message always seems to be the same: Assume the person will read the piece, and will be upset. And write it anyway.
Write it. But is that right?
“I’ve sold my family out a lot,” said Huffington Post essayist Tamar Abrams at the recent conference. She said she hasn’t written about her brother, who is a Harvard Law professor, “because he said he would sue my ass.” But she writes about her parents and others, and never shows her work to them before publication.
A writer has to risk selling out others, memoirist Tom McAllister said. “Your option is either to tell an honest story or hold things back.” “You have to be willing to lose your friends,” he said.
When Cathy Alter in her memoir included unflattering details about her mother, her mother chose not to read the book. But her father did, and chastised her. Yet Alter has no regrets. She asked her father, “Should I have lied?” “You have to make people three-dimensional,” she said.
A writer has to write, I keep hearing. When you write, you have to be honest. Being honest means risking offense of others. If you’re harder on yourself in your writing, others really don’t have the right to object.
But everyone I’ve talked to on this subject, and everyone I’ve listened to on panels, is a writer. They are in a bubble that most people don’t occupy. Alter said someone told her that if she felt compelled to write her memoir, she should have written it, but then hidden it away in a drawer. The audience of writers in the room gasped in horror. “I know, right?” Alter said. She bemoaned the fact that she lacked a good comeback for the awful offense she felt by that statement. But what about the offense her mother felt?
I feel the woman who caused Alter offense had a point. Okay, your muse is insisting you get it on paper, so obey her. But why do you have to publish it?
I confess to examining this issue in such detail because I am wrestling with it myself. I have begun to explore the personal essay form in the last two years, and am working on a memoir in my MFA program. At times I am writing about others in a way that I believe is flattering, but what I’ve learned from memoirists is that others will take offense even when you think you’re being nice, simply because they don’t see themselves as you do.
But sometimes I am not being nice. Or, to put it another way, I am painting somebody in what I perceive to be three dimensions, and I know they will not appreciate that. I’m writing about private moments, times when the subject could not possibly have imagined that their actions or words would be broadcast to the world. Beyond that, what would be broadcast would not be actual footage, but my own perception, colored by biases and the passage of time.
I believe the writers I’ve sought knowledge from on this issue fail to appreciate the fact that non-writers don’t get this burning need writers feel to not only write their stories, but share them with the world.
One of my MFA advisors–a brilliant writer and teacher who I’d love to work with on this issue if it becomes my critical thesis–tells me that her memoirs of child abuse and sexual addiction have helped many others who suffered like her. The title of Sue Silverman’s craft book Fearless Confessions makes clear the advice she offers. But while individuals in her sexual addiction memoir, Love Sick, were still alive when she wrote it, her sexually abusive father and truth-denying mother both were dead when she wrote Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You.
I maintain the writer’s courage must be higher when the subjects can read what you’ve written, and know that others who interact with them also can read it, potentially changing their opinion of that person. There are things about myself of which I am not proud, and at some point I may be willing to share on the page. I would not appreciate someone else sharing those in writing first, colored by their own perspective.
I haven’t found the answers I seek. For now I continue to write, wondering what I would risk publishing and what I would choose to leave in the drawer. I also wonder if other creatives have pondered this dilemma in their own creativity, if they’ve been able to pull themselves out of the artist bubble and appreciate the perspectives of those they would portray in their art.
I invite your thoughts below.