Do I Own My Story? But What If It’s Also Your Story, and You Don’t Want Me To Tell It?
January 5, 2016 § 83 Comments
By Laurie Hertzel
Like any good student, I sat in the front row, took diligent notes, and believed, for a while, everything my teachers said. As a young newspaper reporter, I had ambitions beyond daily journalism, so for years I attended as many workshops and seminars as possible, studying narrative writing, fiction, and, eventually, memoir.
“I own my story,” I obediently jotted during a memoir lecture—or words to that effect. “No one has the right to tell me what I can or can’t write.”
But when I began working on my first memoir, I realized that it’s not that simple. Yes, I own my story—that is, I have the right to tell the stories of my life. But I don’t live in a vacuum, and in order to tell my stories I cannot help but tell the stories of others. Do I have that right? Do I have the right to recall things that other people did, write them down, attach their names to them, and publish them in a book? Do I have to ask permission? What if they say no?
(“I own my story.” Like that’s going to persuade them.)
I kept going to workshops and seminars. I asked this question. I got a lot of different answers. Some recommended that I change names. Some recommended that I change names and identifying characteristics. Some recommended folding several minor characters into one composite.
I began to wonder where nonfiction ended and fiction began. Is there no way to tell a story honestly and fully without fictionalizing—or without alienating people?
In my memoir, News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist, I took the easy way out. When I wrote about the city editor who trapped me under a desk, and the university professor who sneered at my career, I didn’t use their names.
Clearly, this will not always work. This is not the answer for characters who appear in more than one brief scene, and it’s not the answer for writing about siblings, or parents. (How do you change the name “Mother”?)
I thought about this a lot, for years. I went to grad school, and as I worked on my MFA, I chose this topic to explore in my craft paper: How do established memoirists handle writing about people who might not want to be written about? How do they handle telling stories that might not be entirely theirs? The answer that I found, of course, was the frustrating one that there is no one answer. There are a lot of ways to handle this. While I longed for clear guidance (remember, I was a good student), I did find it comforting to realize that most writers have given this serious consideration.
- Just go for it. “You own everything that happened to you,” Anne Lamott wrote in Bird by Bird. “Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” I like this answer because it’s flippant and freeing, but at the same time I know that the city editor and that English department chairman, had I named them, would almost certainly disagree.
- Don’t go for it. “If you have reason to believe you’re another Dostoyevsky, you can say anything you want to,” said Calvin Trillin in Family Man. “The readers of the future deserve that. If you don’t have reason to believe you’re another Dostoyevsky, you can’t.” Also flippant. But not freeing; constraining. Who among us thinks they’re another Dostoyevsky? (In my experience, it’s generally people who definitely are not.)
- Change names, change relationships, obfuscate. Phillip Lopate’s mother “forbade me ever to write about her again. I refused,” he writes in To Show and to Tell. “She said she would still come to my book party but would tell everyone I was her nephew, not her son.” Lopate did change the names of his siblings in some of his essays, but it didn’t help; one sibling remained furious twenty years on.
- Avoid naming anybody. In his memoir, Pull Me Up, New York Times reporter Dan Barry barely mentions his siblings. They didn’t want to be in his book, he told me, and so he didn’t include them.
- Be bold, but accept that there will be fallout. “I’ve lost quite a few people along the way,” Patricia Hampl writes in I Could Tell You Stories. “And not to death. I lose them to writing. The one who accused me of appropriating her life, the one who said he was appalled, the poet miffed by my description of his shoes, the dear elderly priest who said he thought I understood the meaning of a private conversation, this one, that one. Gone. Gone. Their fading faces haven’t faded at all, just receded, turned abruptly away from me, as is their right.”
It is Hampl’s fate I worry about. I don’t want to lose friends or family members. So I continue to attend workshops and seminars, continue to search for a magic one-size-fits-all answer. At AWP in April, I attended a panel led by memoirist Debra Monroe. I sat as close to the front as I could get, and I wrote down a lot of familiar advice: Change the names. Change identifying characteristics.
But I also heard this, from writer Emily Fox Gordon: “Beware the small, gratuitous hurt.”
And I think that is the best advice of all. It’s not magic, and it’s not going to solve the problem. But it does allow me to write with as clear a conscience as possible: I will tell the truth, be bold, and whenever possible, be kind.
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Her short fiction has appeared in journals such as North Dakota Quarterly and South Carolina Review and one of her stories won the Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize. She is the co-author of They Took My Father: Finnish-Americans in Stalin’s Russia, published in 2004 by the University of Minnesota Press. Her memoir, News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist, (U of Minn. Press, 2010) was the winner of a Minnesota Book Award. She will earn her MFA from Queens University in Charlotte, N.C., in January 2016.