How to Write Truths About People Who May Be Hurt by Them by Norma Watkins
Do we have the right to write bad things about people, family members or friends, who may recognize themselves and be hurt?
My novel In Common is based on my family. This is how I tried to apologize for potential hurt in the Acknowledgments:
This book is pure invention except for the parts that are true. I have changed the names of fine, decent people because I don’t want to embarrass them or their descendants. I have kept the names of public figures, and a few beloved servants, who never received the recognition they deserved. The historical events happened. In between, I made up a lot of stuff.
When you get ready to write the hard stuff, ask yourself three questions: Is the story true? Is the story meant to hurt, or are you presenting facts necessary to tell the story? If the answers are yes, it’s true; no, I’m not trying to hurt anyone; and yes, this truth is necessary to the story, you’re okay.
Authors have various opinions about how much to reveal. Faulkner says you should be willing to sell your grandmother for a good story. Annie Dillard says she would never write about people who don’t have equal access to a printing press. Some writers show the work to family members and get their approval. You can change names if you tell us you’re doing so. If you are writing memoir, that carries the implication of veracity, so if you are changing names, making up dialogue, or inventing where you can’t know what happened, insert a little author intrusion and tell us.
From Barrington, Writing the Memoir: Laying bare the soul with absolute frankness is still an act of courage. To speak honestly about family and community is to risk accusations of betrayal, of being a whistle-blower on the myths that families and communities create to protect themselves from painful truths.
But a memoir (or a disguised memoir) does need to be candid. And there’s nothing wrong with speculating on what might have been, or telling the reader how you’ve always imagined your parents’ early lives. Realize that there may be conflicting claims between the exact truth of the story and its emotional truth as you experienced it. If anyone complains, remind them this is your story, your truth, and invite them to write their own.
Be prepared to check facts where you can, but don’t be afraid to tell the truth. Women, especially, have been told, “You can’t write about that.” “It will kill your mother.” We know in advance about the turned backs, the raised eyebrows, the gossip. We know what we must do to be approved of, that we are expected to keep the peace, smooth over conflict, and “make nice.”
Here’s Virginia Woolf writing in l931:
I will describe her as shortly as I can. She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draft, she sat in it—in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of other. .And when I came to write I encountered her with the very first words. The shadow of her wings fell on my page; I heard the rustling of her skirts in the room. I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her. My excuse, if I were to be had up in a court of law, would be that I acted in self-defence. Had I not killed her she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing.
You need to risk unpleasantness and tell the truth. We learn from each other’s stories and that is, perhaps, the great gift of story-telling. Shared humanity makes us feel a little less alone in the world.
Alice Walker wrote in The Same River Twice: “If you go deeply enough into yourself, you come up in other people. We have the capability to connect to absolutely everyone ….”
Some subjects are so prohibited they have become taboo: childhood abuse, sexual violence, certain mental and physical illnesses. Overcoming your own inhibition is the first step in dealing with these monsters. You must write in a way that is engaging without compromising the truth. Tell the story for the story’s sake. You are not asking for sympathy. You have made peace with the facts. The rewards you seek are the rewards that go with courage: you take the risk. It is that unique blend of truth and art that touch a reader’s heart with immediate sorrow or lift a reader’s spirits in a flash of recognition.
When dealing with painful subjects, Ursula K. le Guin says, there’s a distinction between wallowing and bearing witness.
Distance helps. To describe something painful or difficult, tell us the story as if you were talking about someone else. Keep us at an empathic distance. The story can be maddening, but the writing isn’t mad. The story can be heart-breaking, but the writer doesn’t whine. This usually means using third person, but you can use first if the tone is right.
Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
1.Make a list of things you consider taboo for yourself.
2.Write a piece that begins with the words: “It would be much too dangerous to talk about …”
3. Pick a problematic story from your past, something you would have trouble dealing with: Tell it in the first person, present tense. For example: I am standing barefoot in the hall outside my parents’ bedroom …
5. List any events or people you would not write about if your writing were to be published. Pick one and write a page about it or him/her.
6. Write a portrait of someone you hate, knowing that person will never see it.
7. Write how it would feel if that person did see it.
There are other strategies you can use when truth becomes too painful. 1)Turn it into fiction. 2) change the gender of the main character. 3) Use my trick—wait until they die.
Another strategy to remember: When you begin the write about a painful event, slow the writing down. We have a tendency to race through the hurtful stuff. Resist this. Let the reader feel what you or your character felt: the shortened breath, the pounding heart, the nausea.
Write now; worry later. In the end, most people do want to be written about, and if they don’t, disguise them. if the event is what wakes you up at night and gives you bad dreams, that’s exactly what we want to read.
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