Regular readers of The Artist’s Road know I’m a bit obsessed right now on this notion of how we write about people who are alive, and how they may not take well to what we write (see my recent blog post on this topic, and the insightful comments it sparked).
Yes, I’m working on a travel memoir, so it’s creative non-fiction, but this can apply to any form of art or writing. For example, I’m reading Cheryl Strayed‘s Wild right now, a memoir in which she writes extensively about her ex-husband (under a different name), revisiting the material from her powerful essay “The Love of My Life” in The Sun.
but she first incorporated elements of him in the husband character (again, a different character name) in her novel Torch.
Here at my MFA residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, I attended an informal talk by Michael Hemery, who has just seen published a collection of essays, No Permanent Scars. I had already attended his reading, and was quite taken with his writing. I am also taken with his story–he is a recent VCFA alum, and the writing he did here in this program is essentially the pre-rewrite version of his book. That’s an inspiring story for this student.
Hemery admitted that, with a week to go before publication, he called his editor in a panic, asking that the first essay in the collection be removed. He had written a “not so flattering portrayal” of someone from his youth, a rather aggressive fellow who he feared, upon reading this depiction, “would hunt me down and destroy me and my family.” The editor balked–it is quite troublesome and expensive to stop production just before going to press–but agreed to the delay, and removed the essay.
Hemery said he asked himself if he shouldn’t just take the risk of publication. He decided he didn’t need to, because “it wasn’t worth it.” There wasn’t enough need for that story to be told to publish it, he said. He told enough with his other essays, and has no regrets about its removal.
He did admit to calling his grandmother a liar in one essay. He gathers she didn’t read the essay, but a friend of hers read the passage to him. The lie was that Hemery is descended from “French Vikings,” but Hemery’s father says the truth is they are instead the offspring of poor fishermen. Hemery said his grandmother called him on the phone and, without referencing the published essay, launched into an extended “history” of his French Viking ancestors.
I asked him more about this decision-making process, what to publish and what to keep in the proverbial drawer. He said “I never think about it while I write it. I have to write freely, I don’t censor it. That would kill it.” It is only after he feels the essay is done that he then weighs whether it should be introduced to the world.
I’ve decided to do my critical thesis this semester on this topic of writing about people who are still living. My advisor will be the incomparable Sue William Silverman, author of a craft book, Fearless Confessions, that addresses this issue (as well as many others). (I should also note that Sue was an advisor to Hemery when he was a student here.) Sue’s parents were both dead when she wrote the first of her two memoirs about her childhood of sexual abuse from her father, but she told me the other day that her sister was very much alive when the first memoir–Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You–was published. Let’s just say the sister was none too pleased.
Rest assured I will be blogging more on this subject as I delve deeper into what other memoirists have done with this issue. As always, I welcome your thoughts on the subject, and how you approach it in your own creative work.