A Good Chat, a Good Chap: Writing About Alive People

from Flickr user CraigeMorsels
from Flickr user CraigeMorsels

One of the many things that I laugh at myself about is that I’m 32. There’s really no call for me to be writing a memoir. I’ve got no business.

I don’t think it would matter what I was working on, I’d feel like I had no business writing it.

Another thing that gives me chuckles and massive, intestine-twisting anxiety in equal parts is that I’m writing a lot about alive people.

Some of these alive people are people with whom I’ve not been on the greatest terms for some time. A lot of them are members of my family.

And this is shitty, but I really am not worried too much about writing stuff about my parents. They might be upset with me for a while, but they won’t stop talking to me forever, because they love the hell out of their grandchild. Who knew that having a baby at 24, which is one of the many things I’m writing about, would protect me from memoir backlash in the future? Ha!

I’m working through an edition of Writing the Memoir: From Truth To Art, and the section on writing about people who are alive says (this is a paraphrase),

You have a responsibility to the people you’re writing about other than yourself, you don’t necessarily have to stop what you’re doing, but you have to understand that what you’re doing may have larger consequences for them, and is it worth it? The limits of responsibility and how to define them vary from writer to writer, from story to story. Some people do it this way, others do it another way, your answer will depend on your sense of ethics and your willingness to open yourself to legal trouble. More on that in the appendix.

The appendix says that memoirists have to worry about defamation and invasion of privacy. There are a bunch of things that a work has to be in order to be defaming, and one of the things is false, so I feel fairly safe from that one. It also says you’re probably okay if you change names and avoid specifically identifiable information, which I would do anyway, because I worry about getting sued, and when pressed, about potential harm to the people I know or have known, even though some of them deserve my ire.

I’m not sure I’m fond of the idea of literary revenge. It strikes me as unproductive and ultimately unsatisfactory. I am trying to be fair, even when it is hard.

Of course, I’ve thought a lot about this.

Good Chap

Over the past several weeks, you’ve read some stories involving others. Sometimes those stories have been intimate, like in the post about my sister and I showering together.

I sent my sister the copy I intended to use, and she said, “well, that’s not exactly how I remember it, but that’s the beauty of narrative, right?” She gave me her blessing.

Earlier this week, I wrote about the first time I ever gave a guy a blow job. It was a thing I really hadn’t thought about in probably years, and it just leapt off my fingers.

And that hasn’t been posted yet, but it will be.

And I felt like, since that guy is still alive, and since we have friends in common, and since I thought it would be shitty for him to get a phone call something like this:

“Hello.”

“OH MY GOD, DUDE, APRIL WROTE ABOUT YOU ON HER BLOG!”

[silence]

“I DIDN’T KNOW YOUR PENIS IS RED!”

it would be classy of me to spare him by getting his permission, or at least say, “This is what I’m doing.  I’d love to use your real name. What are your thoughts?”

Because that guy possesses Mad Literary Respec, he said, (paraphrasing again, to protect the innocent) You totally weren’t required to ask me, but I appreciate it that you did. I’m cool as long as you don’t use my real name.

Then I said, “Dangit. Your real name is perfect.”

Then he said, “How about Leo?”

Then I said, “Baller.”

But Penelope says that you should never be afraid to get permission or to negotiate.

And doing that, which is sometimes way out of my comfort zone, is one of the many ways in which I shall grow, a lot, by writing this thing, and already have, and some of the other gajillion reasons I really don’t care if it never sees the light of day beyond this blog (though I’m totally operating under the assumption that somebody will publish it. How’s that for self-aggrandizing paradox?).

So what I’m saying here is that the more I write, the more I find that there are so, so few hard-and-fast rules that I should just do it, go with my gut, and work out the rest of it later.

I offer the same to you: Just do it. Carpe Diem. Now or never. Feliz Navidad. Etc.

Advertisements

Self (Publishing) Help: Birthing Originality and Truth

From Flickr User Swami Stream, Temple of Truth

I told a friend the other day that I honestly can’t remember the pain of child birth.  I can’t describe it specifically, the way I can describe the sting and itch of mosquito bite ages after it’s dried out and my flesh is white and smooth again.  My friend will soon become a mom, and she is worried and scared and she wants to avoid the pain.  I understand that.

There is no benefit to the pain.  Other than knowing that your mind can swallow anything it doesn’t want you to recall.

I think she asked me about it because she expected me to tell the truth.  She has read some of my blog.  I am a writer.  What are writers, after all, other than people who use lies, language, and literary devices to tell the truth?

What I did tell her was that whenever I try to write about it–in prose or poetry or essay–all I get is that the pain was like I imagine it must feel to have a cinder block slowly rotated inside your vagina: scraping and sharp and bloody.

The other week, I wrote about the Writer’s Digest webinar I attended, and Smoky wrote in the comments that she thinks that writing to a formula is wrong, and that she tells her students not to listen to Writer’s Digest’s advice about how stories work.

I think she is both right and wrong.  Doing it in a formula can be as helpful as it is unhelpful.  Every writer must find her own way.

But In reading Writing Down the Bones, which is one of the assigned readings for the residency, I found this chapter that really resonated with me, and that speaks to this very thing.

And I am even more convinced now that any writer at any stage of the game should own a copy of this book.  It is always relevant and inspiring and full of ideas.  But it is not prescriptive.  It does not say, “This is the way.”  It says, “There are many ways, here’s mine.  Let me help you look for yours.”

Trust Yourself

That’s the title of the chapter of Natalie Goldberg’s book that really speaks to me on this reading.

Here’s my favorite passage:

This is where the depth of the relationship with yourself is so important.  You should listen to what people say.  Take in what they say. (Don’t build a steel box around yourself.) Then make your own decision.  It’s your poem and your voice.  There are no clear-cut rules; it is a relationship with yourself.  What is it you wanted to say?  What do you want to expose about yourself?  Being naked in a piece is a loss of control.  This is good.  We’re not in control anyway.  People see you as you are.  Sometimes we expose ourselves before we understand what we have done.  That’s hard, but even more painful is to freeze up and expose nothing.  Plus freezing up makes for terrible writing.

And that’s what, I think, Smoky was saying when she said that Writer’s Digest will train the writer out of a person and make her into a factory fictioneer.  Following a formula that somebody else taught you means that you can stop trusting yourself.  “If I do it like this, then it will be right.”

That is wrong.  Right is, “If I do it like me, then it will be right.”

I and Smoky and Natalie Goldberg want you to trust your own sense of truth when you’re writing.  We don’t want you to ask Writer’s Digest how to make a story, or Donald Maass, or J.A. Konrath, or Mike Hyatt.

There are no new stories.  One of the oldest texts with popular readership is the Bible, and even in there it says, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

What it unique is you.  There’s no other writer in the whole wide world who has exactly the same life, experiences, expectations, ideas, values, thoughts, education as you.  So even if you’re telling a story that’s been told a zillion times before, it’s new because you are telling it.

Your truth is original because it’s yours.

So tell it.  And don’t be afraid.  And don’t limit yourself with too much thinking about structure or plot or tricks.  Just read and write and everything will come out okay.

After you do that, get an editor.  Or a book doctor. Or beta readers.  Or all three.  A post on book doctors is coming next week.