It’s My Story (And I’ll Tell If I Want To)
September 29, 2016 § 29 Comments
Roz Warren writes revealing personal essays for a living. When she found out her partner had been cheating on her, intensely, intimately, for ten years, she wrote about it. Of course. At Broad Street Review, she addresses the obvious question:
Why? I’m a writer. It’s what I do. I write about everything that happens to me. It’s how I cope and how I understand my life. For years, I’ve been writing about how wonderful Mike is. He’s turned up over and over again in my essays. I told the world how funny and clever and loving he was. How I loved him. How much fun the two of us had together. I’ve even appeared on the Today show, where Savannah Guthrie interviewed me about an essay I’d written for the New York Times in which Mike was featured, being fabulous, loving, and supportive. When Mr. Wonderful turned out to have been Mr. Infidelity all along, why wouldn’t I write about that too?
Roz talks about the tiny voice she heard–a voice I’ve heard, too–when her partner admitted the affair.
“This is awful. This is devastating. And unbelievable. And hateful. And…this is amazing material.”
At moments of horrifying emotional trauma, part of my brain steps back and starts noting down metaphors. No, I’ll tell it like this–hey, remember that detail, the song you’ll always think of as the soundtrack to this moment…
Roz Warren’s partner was, not unnaturally, unhappy about her new topic. Furious, in fact. But one of her friends quoted Anne Lamott–“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people want you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
That’s how I feel, too. I also write personal essays. I also talk frankly about bad behavior. And I believe that not only is it possible to do so ethically and kindly–for a given value of “kind”–but that writing ethically makes better work. Recently, a friend who’d experienced a public, traumatic, but unintentional insult asked me, “What are your thoughts on writing something that might be unflattering to someone who will also likely read it (I’d keep them anonymous as much as possible)?”
I told her I was all for it. That I’d kept an anonymous sex blog for two years and at least three of the people I was having sex with, and with whom I shared my work, read some very unflattering things about themselves. My now-husband is the only person in my life whose privacy is more valuable to me than a story, and I still wrote a piece that included a line about our mutual pornography habits.
To my friend, I suggested some guidelines to remain ethical and kind while telling one’s own truth:
- First write it. Always write before any negotiation with yourself or anyone else. Don’t sabotage your first draft. First drafts are private.
- In a subsequent draft, make sure you are at least as harsh with yourself as you are with everyone else. How do you reconcile your own behavior with the situation or the end result? Is there anyone who deserves the benefit of the doubt? Self-hagiography is boring. Nobody wants to be told you’re the hero of your own story, and very few situations truly involve a wronged innocent.
- Make sure you’re showing instead of telling–Is the person’s behavior clear through visible action, rather from your feelings about their character?
- Figure out where you’re going to publish. If you want to maintain a good relationship, think about how much publicity may happen, and plan ahead. For example, I had limited consent to tell a story about a friend in a venue outside the friend’s orbit. The story was republished by another outlet (beyond my control) with a bigger audience. Even though it was one of my bucket-list venues, I didn’t promote it, because doing so would have brought it into my friend’s line of sight and been hurtful. Try not to publish the essay about your horrible mother in the magazine all her friends read. Shaming is for editorials.
- Remember that sharing information is not asking for permission. If you choose to tell the person you’ve written about before publication, try, “I had some complicated feelings about X and I’ve written about them. Would you like to know anything about the content before I publish it, so that you’re aware of what’s out there?” You may or may not wish to add, “I value our friendship, and I’m not mad at anyone, but I needed to process how I felt in the moment, and this is a snapshot of a particular time and place.” Then, based on what they say and who it is, you can allow them to read the actual piece, summarize the content, or summarize just the part they’re in. Think of yourself at this stage not as the writer, but as the fact-checker. It’s hard and uncomfortable to share work that’s already close to our hurt feelings with the person who hurt us, but it can deepen the piece to ask the person, “why did you do that?” and see if their stated motivation belongs in there, too. If you are already estranged, you don’t have to seek them out. You’re writing about your world, not theirs.
- Remember that not everyone wants to know. My husband has said, “there are a lot of books in the world, and that’s one I won’t be reading,” about my memoir. I’m OK with that. Respect boundaries.
A writer’s obligation is to the truth as they experience it. We should be fair, but we don’t have to stay quiet for fear of hurting feelings. As Roz Warren puts it: “I wish with all my heart that Mike had been the loving, trustworthy man I thought he was, and that I didn’t have this terrible betrayal to write about. But I do. So I am.”
Read her whole essay at Broad Street Review.
Allison K Williams is the Social Media Editor for Brevity and the author of Get Published In Literary Magazines.