AWP 2012 – Selling Out Everyone You Love: The Ethics of Writing Nonfiction

March 1, 2012 § 25 Comments

By Patrick Ross

R148: Selling Out Everyone You Love: The Ethics of Writing Nonfiction / Thursday, March 1, 2012 – 10:30-11:45 am

“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.

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§ 25 Responses to AWP 2012 – Selling Out Everyone You Love: The Ethics of Writing Nonfiction

  • Leigh Gilmore says:

    Thanks for the eloquent update.

    The “selling out” model in which memoirists are seen as exchanging 30 pieces of silver with a publisher to betray of a close relation strikes me as anachronistic, a product of a time in which one did not speak of certain realities in public and those silences permitted far worse betrayals to persist.

    I do not discount that a memoirist can be either a faithless scammer or a vengeful angel; however, that’s very different from saying the entire enterprise of writing about relationality is corrupt.

  • Patrick Ross says:

    Thanks for this comment, Leigh. A recurring theme of the panel was that the memoirist is not seeking to scam or exact vengeance. However, Poe Ballantine did admit he once used a published essay to eviscerate a former neighbor he had a beef with, so that option is always on the table, I suppose!

  • The Desert Rocks says:

    Loved this. Also, very timely considering my post!

  • siggiofmaine says:

    Great food for thought. Perspective is in the eye of the reader and not the writer, as assumed. And when dealing with perspective, one does seem to open a can of worms if it hits too close to home for the reader that is accurately or fictionally portrayed. Sigh.

    I once verbally said something flattering about someone who then called me and threatened to sue me, because, altho I’d said nice things, she said she hadn’t given me permission to say them. No good deed goes unpunished.☺.

    Thanks for the interesting post.
    Siggi in Downeast Maine

  • melissa cronin says:

    I was at the panel, too! Lots of great information. What particularily resonated with me was to consider, when writing, that which is life enhancing. Thanks patrick. It was great to see you at the conference.

  • A couple of times while writing fiction (and sharing it with fellow writers for feedback), people were offended that I was writing about them – when I wasn’t. But then once, when I did put someone into a fictional story (with warts and all), he didn’t notice at all. You never know how something will strike folks. . . .

    Thanks for the summary of this panel. Did they cover anything about the legalities of it? That seems as big a landmine as upsetting family, friends and colleagues.

  • Did anyone have stories of //positive// responses from people who appear in their writing?

    Did they talk about changing facts to protect people’s identities and whether or not that made it easier for those written about to receive it?

    • Patrick Ross says:

      Hi Allison,

      I didn’t hear stories of positive feedback, but several said they do share their work with people beforehand–although more of a head’s up–and Cheryl said she asked her husband permission before writing about his infidelity. He wasn’t thrilled with the idea–go figure–but gave her his blessing.

      They said in a lot of cases you can change a name or physical characteristics. Stephen said he’s done that with ex-girlfriends. But they acknowledged it’s difficult if it’s an essay about, say, you and your mother. It’s gonna be your mother. They also said that even when you contort it so no one else will recognize it, the subject still will. Stephen said he writes such that the person will recognize him/herself but their boss won’t.

  • Some folks want their private lives to remain private. It doesn’t matter that the writer portrays them as kind, humane, understanding, etc…They don’t want their lives exploited. It’s a bit like Native Americans who objected to having their pictures taken because they didn’t want to lose a piece of their souls. When you lose control of your story, you lose a piece of yourself. Our stories are how we define and make sense of our lives.

    I’m a nonfiction writer, and I grapple with this all the time. I haven’t found a way around it, or a way to make myself “feel” better about it. I try not to rationalize. I try to write from a place of humility. And I do it in fear and trembling.

    • verlin says:

      Donna, Well said. But, whose story it it? Currently, I’m struggling with rewriting the memoir of how my adopted daughter and I located her biological mother, who was delighted we found her, but sorely grieved when she saw a first draft of the recently written memoir. She wants “her story” to remain private, even threatening to cut off contact with my daughter..

  • ns says:

    Thanks for posting! I can’t attend AWP and am enjoying this vicarious glimpse.

  • This was a great post and deals with something I struggle with as I write my memoir – my parents are dead and my sister and brother are older – nieces and nephews are alive – I am toying with changing some names to protect the living – I also have children who will be learning things about my past they’ve never been told, so memoir can hurt others. I sent an unedited (using real names) copy of a rough draft to my brother and his comment was, “Now I see why she wants to be called Heather instead of Shirley.” The past is painful. What keeps me writing is my prayer that sharing my story will help others on their journey of healing. There are many others mentioned in my account and I’m thinking about how to present them. Perhaps the best thing is a comment in the front of the book -these are MY perceptions of what went on and how I responded to them. Others may see the same circumstances differently.

    Have a blessed day.

  • Vicki Gundrum says:

    I have permission and encouragement from the “main characters” in my memoir. They even signed release forms (they are criminals who want fame). The minor family characters have passed away or are depicted lovingly (I’ve changed their names, but they have my same last name). Nonetheless, I’m simply not telling family about the book, because they wouldn’t want their friends to know they have a family member (me) who talks to “undesireables.” I don’t know where Dan Simmons got his numbers but in his 2006 blog post:
    he reports that only 6% of the population reads books and only 2% are reading fiction. Why would my nonreading family even know about my book if I don’t tell them? Wouldn’t this situation hold true of most published books?

    • Patrick Ross says:

      You’re probably right, Vicki. But I should share more about Lee Martin’s aunt. She lives in the Midwest and doesn’t really read, he said. His short story, a fictionalized account of his father, appeared in a New England literary journal. A friend of his aunt’s stayed in a Vermont B&B, saw the magazine, recognized the last name, and asked Lee’s aunt if they were related. The story was similar for Krista Bremer. She didn’t tell anyone in her family, but somehow within 24 hours of publication EVERY family member knew.

      Their advice was to always assume they’ll find out.

      • Vicki Gundrum says:

        Thank you, Mr. Ross. More to consider. Maybe a pseudonym? It’s a first book.

      • Patrick Ross says:

        Using a pseudonym was an option some panelists said you can do. Poe Ballantine is actually a pseudonym, although he said he uses it because his real name is too boring.

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