MFA Nugget: Still More on Writing About People in Your Life

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.

Michael Hemery, a talented, skilled–and book-published–essayist, who is also a proud VCFA alum.

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.

20 thoughts on “MFA Nugget: Still More on Writing About People in Your Life

  1. AnnieZ

    A heartfelt THANK YOU for taking the time to blog about your experiences at VCFA. It’s fantastic to be able to witness, from here, what you are learning and pondering. Thanks for sharing your process.


  2. Experience is so subjective, and so often remembered completely different by two people who supposedly experienced the very same incident. (Anyone who has spent an hour arguing with a family member knows this. Haha!) I would bet Hemery’s grandmother does not see herself as a liar. She probably ‘knows’ they were descended from Vikings.

    It so often seems that memoir writers choose to write about the main character (themselves, usually) being put upon. Even the title you mention (by Sue William Silverman) is one that suggests the writer is remembering a father who terrorized her.

    Wouldn’t a memoir written from the perspective of the ‘bad guy’ be interesting? It would be a challenge to write about something one lived through from the perspective of another, and try to make sense of it from the other’s consciousness. The challenge would be to see them as flawed, but recognizably human.

    Lolita, comes to mind. Although that wasn’t a memoir (as far as we know!)

    Your honesty was one of the things I admired about your essay last week, Patrick, you didn’t whitewash your involvement in the choices you made, or try to demonize your ex. That’s what made it interesting.


    1. Thank you for this thoughtful, and thought-provoking, comment. I really do value your contributions to this blog.

      First, let me chime in on the notion of difference in perspective. Yes, I fully agree, and any prosecutor knows that as they put witnesses on the stand. One of the creative theses written by a former student here is titled “It Was True for Me: How Childhood Memoirists Walk the Tightrope Between Memory Experienced and Memory Imagined,” and I intend to read it before I leave here.

      As for the grandma, I’m sure she believes it, and that raises another question, how sometimes we choose to stick with a belief even when faced with “truth” that contradicts it. (For what it’s worth, my ex-wife’s side of the family, Italian immigrants, is convinced Patrick Henry is somehow in their bloodline. My daughter is skeptical, my son is sold on the idea. To me, I don’t really care, I encourage each to choose their own interpretation of this family story.)

      Yes, it would be fascinating to do a memoir from another’s point of view. It’s probably been done, but how enlightening would it be for the memoirist to force him/herself to see things through those other eyes.

      Thank you for your comments about the honesty in “September 12th.” I like to think that essay is an example of where the memoirist shines the brightest light on himself and his own failings and weaknesses. And, ultimately, it’s about how I came to accept my ex-wife in my life. As it happens, I consider her a good friend today, someone I speak with on a daily basis.


  3. Kate Arms-Roberts

    I am benefitting from watching you wrestle with this question. One of the blogs I write for gets me wanting to write about some of my issues as a parent and figuring out how to write about parenting challenges while being kind to my kids is a huge issue for me. Thank you.


    1. You’re welcome, Kate. I also know we’ve discussed in the past your choice of writing fiction vs. CNF and how you have made those decisions. I suspect you understand what I’m wrestling with here fairly well.


      1. Kate Arms-Roberts

        I’m dealing with a related and classic fiction writer’s issue right now in a short story I am writing. The story was inspired by things I have seen, but is fictional. By including a few details of things I have personally experienced to give texture and verisimilitude to the story, I fear that the people I was with in the places I describe will read the piece and think I am writing unkindly about them, so I am considering a possible alternate setting.


        1. Ah, yes. I was just reading a former student’s critical thesis on the dilemma of CNF writers who opt to go to fiction thinking it will protect those they write about, but even when they change some details people pick up on it. It would seem changing the setting would be a good feint, if you will.


          1. Kate Arms-Roberts

            It seems odd to call it a feint when the goal is to convey a truth – that the story is fictional. But, there are many readers who are hard pressed to believe that fiction writers make things up, so any detail that can be pressed into service as confirmation that a story is autobiographical often gets put into that role. Having recognized that one individual might read herself into the story, I feel obliged to address it as I edit, though I refuse to compromise the story itself, which truly has nothing to do with her.


  4. Very interesting post, Patrick. It’s always a challenge to write about people who are still living. One correction: I didn’t base any characters in Torch on my ex-husband or draw from him for any characters (though other characters in the book had things in common with people I know).


    1. Cheryl, first my gratitude for visiting The Artist’s Road. I absolutely love Wild, and I found of great value your comments on this topic at AWP (I blogged on that panel for the Brevity blog: ). I also direct the students in my blogging class at The Writer’s Center to your Dear Sugar posts as an example of a blogger with a compelling voice and style who can also make excellent use of the tools of the personal essay (I cite Lopate’s introduction from The Art of the Personal Essay in my curriculum).

      My apologies for the error; I’ve fixed it, complete with good blog ethics that doesn’t hide my screw-up. I’ve seen your novel described as “autobiographical,” so I made an assumption, but we both know what happens when we assume.

      No need to answer this, but as someone who clearly has given a lot of thought to writing about those who are alive, I’d welcome any books/interviews/essays that you think I should examine as I begin my critical thesis on this topic.


  5. I doubt they’d recognize themselves – I am surrounded by self-labeled paragons of virtue.

    However, to paraphrase Albus Dumbledore, he doubted his brother could read so my risk is significantly reduced. *wink*


  6. Thank you, Patrick, for tackling this subject. As fiction writers, we’re often confronted with the choice of using a real character “full cloth” (always more interesting to me) or making an amalgam of traits for a character. Looking forward to your next post.


  7. p.s. As my great pal Jan Eliot says about her characters in her syndicated cartoon strip “Stone Soup,” the ones she bases on real people don’t recognize themselves while the other characters have been claimed by people she hardly knows. 🙂


    1. I love that insight by Jan Eliot!

      One thing I’ve learned is that we never entirely view ourselves the way others view us, so a writer’s interpretation of me might not be noticeable to me because I don’t “see” that person as me. It’s a little harder to get away with that in CNF; if I write about my ex-wife (as I do in “September 12th”), well, I’ve only got one of them! 🙂


  8. I am looking forward to hearing more about what you come up with in this topic. I’m writing a memoir that is not flattering for my family – as it covers abuse. My parents are dead, but my brother and sister are still living (their offspring are also young adults). I am toying with changing names or details, but must tell the truth about what happened to achieve my purpose – to encourage other abuse victims that healing is possible. My time in the occult is also in this memoir (one of my ways of seeking healing), and I have to figure out how much to tell and if I’ll use real names – likely I will for these people kept me alive until real healing occurred. I’m reading Sue Silverman’s book about her father now, and have read her other memoir and book about writing memoirs. Best of luck with your MFA, and thanks for sharing these posts.


    1. Hi Heather,

      I’ve talked with Sue extensively on this subject–so glad you’re reading her–and she feels strongly about how her book can help, and has helped, others. That is not something to dismiss easily. You have had life experiences that can produce powerful prose, and can help others. I wish you luck with the project, and am glad you are now in a place where you can look back and write on it, which is a triumph in and of itself.

      Thank you for your gratitude regarding these posts and your wish of luck.


  9. Pingback: MFA Nugget: An Entire MFA in Writing Residency in One Post « The Artist's Road

  10. Pingback: Selling Someone Out: The Ethics of Writing about Your SEAL Team Operation to Kill Bin Laden | The Artist's Road

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