Who Owns the Memory? On Telling the Whole Story

May 11, 2010 § 14 Comments

From Guest Blogger Michelle Wittle, one of our book reviewers in Brevity 33:

In my Creative Nonfiction workshop, we had an assignment. We had to take an object and really describe it. The object had to have some emotional meaning to us as well.

It took me a long time to find my object. At first I thought I should have written about my mom’s bracelet. Then I toyed with writing about my dad’s school id from Penn State. Nothing seemed to fit and what I wrote seemed forced and detached.

I sat down on my bed and looked up. Staring at me was this small, handmade wooden box. I had my object. However, there was so much I wasn’t ready to tell about this object, and when I finished the piece, there were still many unanswered questions.

In class everyone was dying to know who the person was who gave me the box and what our relationship was to each other. I smiled coyly and in my head I said, “I’ll never tell,” because I didn’t want the piece to be about our relationship or the person. The piece was about the simple gift of a box. Metaphorically, the box represented hope and a brand new life. I wasn’t about to make the piece into anything more than that because hope and a new life were stories with enough material.

I went home with the comments and looked at the piece. I objectively wondered why I didn’t name the giver of the gift in the first draft  and why I didn’t discuss his past that pushed him to the point of giving me the gift.

I was scared. Who did I think I was writing his story? What if he read it and hated me? What if he saw it and was embarrassed by my introspection?

I threw down my guard on the second draft. I figured if Luke cared enough about me to allow me to be near him in one of the lowest points of his life, then he wasn’t going to care if I wrote about it.  I understood Luke in ways no one else would even try to understand him.  I saw him for what he was — a brilliant, caring, emotional and lost soul.  Because I was granted such insight, shouldn’t I share my information? Shouldn’t I debunk what everyone else thought they saw when they saw Luke?

Luke pulled himself out of his own dark place. Instead of letting depression kill him, he reached out and demanded his life back. Luke was and is my hero and I wanted to share my happiness and love for him with the people who heard my piece. It was all those thoughts that helped me see it was both of our stories and not just his. Luke would never really hate me because he had always let me into his life. Luke may have been embarrassed by my piece, but only because he wouldn’t understand the amount of unconditional love and devotion I have for him.

I finished the piece and I took it out for a spin during a reading held at my school. My professor who had read the first draft of the piece in workshop was in the audience. She was extremely impressed with the revision. Luke was in the audience as well. As I read the piece, I didn’t dare to look at him. I did ask him if he was mad at me for writing it. He looked at me, then off to the side, then back at me. He said, “No, but notice I had to think about it.”


§ 14 Responses to Who Owns the Memory? On Telling the Whole Story

  • Nancy says:

    I think that most of us, knowing that a close friend might write intimately about us and then share what’s written with the public without asking our permission, would reconsider the friendship. Yes, other people are part of our stories, but some stories are not ours to tell. This is true whether the story is told in a small conversational circle or in a public reading whose audience includes the person we’re writing about. (I would make an exception, though, if the person’s anonymity could be preserved.) I don’t at all understand the logic of: “I figured if Luke cared enough about me to allow me to be near him in one of the lowest points in his life, then he wasn’t going to care if I wrote about it.” Frankly, this post, which doesn’t really deliver on the theme stated in the title, sounds a little self-congratulatory. And lacking in humility: How does the author know that she understands Luke “in ways no one else would even try to understand him?” If that were the case, she wouldn’t even need to wonder what his reaction would be. I appreciate that as beginning writers we must learn how to open up and be revealing. But there’s a lot more to it than just throwing down our guard.

  • First, Luke is not the real name. I will NEVER tell who the real Luke is because, as you stayed above, his story is not mine to tell. The story that is mine to tell is the piece I wrote. It was my reaction to his actions.
    How do I know I understand Luke? Because I know I do. Not many people take the time to know him and for that reason I see him as he truly is and not the face he displays for the rest of the world.
    Why do I wonder what his reaction would have been? My life has taught me to always wait for the other shoe to drop. I am conditioned to think people will leave me and that fear keeps me from seeing truths. In my head I know Luke will never be truly mad at me and probably will never leave me, but I still have those knee-jerk reactions.
    For me, I am congratulating myself. I was able to write about something so close to my heart and share it with others. More than that, I was able to stand up in a room full of people and show my gratitude to Luke. I am used to hiding behind characters and the constructs of fiction. With Creative Nonfiction, there is no hiding. The narrator is you and those are the events of your life. Again, for me, sharing what I felt in the piece was a win. If that makes me sound egoistical, then I guess I am. I wouldn’t call myself that, but we are always the last ones to know.
    Thank you so much for your comment Nancy. You bring up some points I didn’t think about.
    Yes, there is more to writing than just throwing our guards down, but we have to start somewhere.

  • T. says:

    I feel I must begin by saying that I disagree with Nancy’s comments and I wonder why she reacted so negatively to this piece.

    I thought the essay was well written and thought provoking. I am a blogger who writes mainly personal essays in the creative non-fiction form. I write about my life, which more often than not, means that I write about the people in my life.

    I use real names when I know that the person I’m including in my story will not mind. I am under strict orders from others to never use their names, and from others still, who have threatened my life if I speak of them at all, (I assume they’re kidding, but I respect their wishes just in case).

    I feel that telling other people’s stories in order to tell our own is what it means to be a creative non-fiction writer. We don’t live in isolation, our lives are woven around the lives of our loved ones and aquaintances – telling their stories, whether we choose to identify them by name or not, is an act of bearing witness to our shared lives. It is an act of respect and love and in my experience, that is usually how it is taken.

    Thanks Michelle.


    • T:
      I think you hit one of the key points to Creative nonfiction with the words, “an act of bearing witness to our shared lives…an act of respect and love…(and) …telling other’s people’s stories in order to tell our own…”
      It may seem that I am being a bit “go, me” for writing a “tell -all” about someone else’s life. But what this blog is discussing is getting the courage to tell “our story” instead of “my story”.
      Thank you so much for your kind words, T. I do appreciate the comment.

  • This is such an important topic–the idea of who has the right to tell details of experience someone else has, not to mention the making of assumptions about one’s own ability to own intimate knowledge of another–and will always be fraught with dilemmas. In the case of asking us to make judgements about the essay that is not even before us, it’s like trying to choose a dress without seeing it. Maybe the color’s perfect, but is it too tight? Too loose? Is the only really personal detail the fact that this person was “depressed”? That “Luke” might have–but didn’t–commit suicide? Is there more sensitive material? That’s heavy stuff, and I would have wanted his permission to reveal it to an audience, even if I didn’t use the person’s name.

    There are lots and lots of situations, however, where delicate facts may already be “out” or at least known to several others. I always like to believe that if the experience was mine as well, then I’m within my rights to write about it. However, I would never want to hurt someone who may not be responsible for their actions–through illness or coersion. But the bottom line is the single aspect of writing that keeps us such a solitary sort: writers rarely keep secrets! And that’s what makes non-fiction so very tricky.

    • Morgan says:

      Hi –
      As a teacher and writer of CNF, I have wrestled with these issues a lot. I think writers need to trust their own instincts. They, for the most part, know what is okay to write about and what isn’t. CNF is an important genre because it does strip away all the things you can hide behind in Fiction. It makes writers look at their lives in more depth and inevitably what they share with readers, readers connect to. Writers are not telling new stories, they’re telling universal stories others don’t know how to or can’t.

      I’ve also learned that WHY you’re writing a story is important – if you want to bash someone and write out of retaliation, then it’s not going to work, but if you write from compassion and trying to understand the other person’s perspective, then more times than not, the writing will hit home.

      I write about my family – a lot – and my rule is that I share whatever I’ve written before I send it out anywhere. That way, my kids and my husband – and in one instance, my stepfather – can sign off on what I’ve written. Sometimes, the pieces change a little depending on what one of them has said, but it’s always for the better.

      It takes guts to write about our lives. It’s scary stuff putting it out there for the world to see, but what a gift to readers when it works.

      Luke should be proud of his friend and of himself.

      • Morgan:
        I agree with your point about a writer’s purpose in a piece. If a writer is looking to beat someone down and become a preacher of “I was right and here is all the reasons why” then the piece dies before it even starts. CNF for me is looking at a spot in my life, something I might have taken for granted, and exploring the lesson within the chunk of time.
        It takes guts to merely write. When one is able to willing to stand up and say “this is my life as I saw it happen and this is what I learned” then not only is CNF at is best, the writer is more than gutsy.

    • Yes, it is hard to discuss the piece about Luke when it hasn’t been read.
      I think the main question of “who owns the story” is one that will never be truly answered. I don’t feel there will ever be a hard fast rule because CNF is so individual. The writer of the piece has to justify the piece in their heart and make the judgement call.

  • Rebecca Gummere says:

    “I figured if Luke cared enough about me to allow me to be near him in one of the lowest points of his life, then he wasn’t going to care if I wrote about it.”

    While the author might feel on solid ground here, I wouldn’t think this would be a template for writers of creative nonfiction. When I saw the title, I assumed this would be more along the lines of a craft essay on the topic of who owns the memory, rather than an apologetic for one person’s decision to go with her gut. Glad for Luke and his victory over darkness…but note, he DID have to think about it.

    • Rebecca:
      You are right, there shouldn’t be a template for CNF because the genre is not a template. CNF pushes its writers and readers outside of templates and “the norm”. At times, it can make people uncomfortable. It took me three weeks to finish Grealy’s “The Autobiography of a Face” because of the constant intensity and self-absorption the book was written with.
      Luke likes to pick on me and when he said he had to think about it, it was his way of making a joke.

      • Rebecca Gummere says:

        Yes, I think template was a poorly chosen word on my part. Standard perhaps is more what I was trying to get at, and I know the conversation is all over the place. When I was working on my MFA, instructors would say vastly different things regarding memory and accuracy (as if there could even be such a thing with memory, unless one has a videocam, and even then, there will only be one pov!), so we are definitely still in conversation about this unfolding and evolving genre. It’s good to know, though, where various editors stand. I believe Lee Gutkind, for example, has some strong things to say about “truth” in creative nonfiction and the writer’s responsibility to that. It will be interesting to see where all this leads – and maybe the standard is evolving into the acceptance of an olio of what creative nonfiction can be. Thanks for sparking some good debate.

  • Rebecca:
    No worries about the semantics of things; it takes me a few minutes to find the right words at times.
    I agree that CNF is the great debate now. The genre is evolving, as you mentioned, and we are the ones helping form the genre. There are a lot of great examples of the truth in CNF and Lee Gutkind is one of the great champions of this genre.
    For me, the truth in a piece is the author’s truth. Maybe Aunt Sally wore a red dress instead of the blue one you remembered. Maybe she didn’t exactly say, “if you eat the seed of a watermelon, one will grow in your stomach”. But maybe you remember your Aunt Sally and all her old wives tales and that is what you want to explore and express to the readers.
    In my own class, there was always one person who would say to me, “well, how do you know that was said” and I would answer her with this quote from Ann Patchett I found in the afterword of Grealy’s “The Autobiography of a Face”.
    Grealy and Patchett were at a reading. A reader asked Grealy if Grealy was afraid of getting the conversations in her book wrong. Grealy answered, “I didn’t remember it…I wrote it. I’m a writer.” (Grealy, 231). Patchett goes on to say, Grealy was , “making art, not documenting an event” (231).
    CNF is about making art out of an event. There may be bits and pieces embellished, but the major points of the event and the feeling they had on the author of the piece is what drives the piece.
    Rebecca, I really enjoyed your comments and I appreciate your additions to this debate.

  • Lori Ann says:

    Thanks, Michelle and everyone else who commented, for having this conversation. I wish the panel I attended at the Denver AWP addressed these concerns as directly as you all have here. Bravo for the food for thought!

    • mwittle says:

      Lori Ann:
      Thank you for your kind words. I have really enjoyed the discussion of this blog and I look forward to seeing more talk about this very important topic.

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