AWP 2012 – Selling Out Everyone You Love: The Ethics of Writing Nonfiction
March 1, 2012 § 25 Comments
By Patrick Ross
“If you’re going to show anyone’s ass, it’s going to be your own.”
Cheryl Strayed doesn’t think much of Joan Didion’s assertion that writing memoir means selling others out. Her contrarian position resonated from the podium at AWP’s session “Selling Out Everyone You Love: The Ethics of Writing Nonfiction.” The Pushcart Prize-winning Strayed told a packed ballroom of 300 writers that she didn’t aim to embarrass her ex-husband when writing about her failed first marriage. In nonfiction, she said, “I show more about myself.”
There is no way to control the reaction of another to appearing in your prose, however.
“If you were to see yourself through your friend’s eyes, you wouldn’t recognize yourself,” said The Rumpus founding editor Stephen Elliott. Even when a subject grants permission for you to portray them in, print, they may be hostile to the result. “They don’t mean,” Elliott said, “‘You can write about a side of me I don’t know I have.”
Hostility can come from any source. “My father threatened to sue if I ever wrote about my family again,” The Sun associate publisher Krista Bremer said. A few days after the publication of an essay about her parents that revealed no dark secrets—no incest, no abuse, no pathology—Bremer found herself sitting on sizzling asphalt beside her mailbox, digesting the “furious scrawl” of her father’s handwriting.
“’Congratulations,’” Bremer said a writer friend told her. “‘If you pissed your family off that much, you got it right.’” Bremer said her father only disputed one fact—her mother drank tonic water with vodka, not gin—but it was what was unspoken that rocked him. “The spaces between the words,” she said, “had been the most difficult for him to contemplate.”
It’s important to remember, said multiple memoir author Lee Martin, that “you volunteer to be a character in your memoir, but others don’t.” Martin first disguised his memoir writing as fiction, but that didn’t lesson the frustration of family. After writing a short story about an anecdote regarding his father that was shared with him by his aunt, his source of information dried up. Martin had betrayed his parents, the aunt said, informing him that “’I’ll never tell you another story about the family again.’”
Yet all of these writers continue to craft and publish memoir. They seek to examine the human condition by telling the truth about others and themselves, as best as they can recall.
There are other reasons to write memoir, said essayist Poe Ballantine.
Years ago a short piece of fiction Ballantine wrote based on his life paid $300, but a subsequent story paid only $200. The publisher informed him the first essay paid more because they thought it was an essay. “‘Oh, you pay more for essays,’ I replied.”
Ballantine’s essay-writing hasn’t stopped, he said. “I have an inexhaustible catalogue of suffering and failure.”
Patrick Ross is a writer and an instructor with The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland.