You Know That Book I’m Writing? You’re in It

September 9, 2019 § 28 Comments


lsellgeBy Lisa Sellge

We try to have lunch together every few years, or that’s what we tell each other. But this time it’s been more than a decade. Once we’ve settled with our not-too-fattening salads, black beans, avocado, we get to the details of life. We tell tales of strange husbands, weird children, we dump our weaknesses on the table and leave behind the Facebook perfection. Life is a struggle. Lunch becomes a one-upmanship of misery. When we get to the part where we tell each other the here-and-now of it, I reveal my MFA endeavors. I try not to go into detail, but they press.

What kind of MFA, they want to know.

Writing.

What kind of writing?

Non-fiction.

So, you’re writing about true things.

Yes.

Like what?

Well, actually, memoir.

It feels silly to say. I try to explain myself. I pull out the old standby: It’s a cautionary tale. It’s a warning. It’s interesting because ballet is a hidden world. Or it was in the eighties.

You’re writing about ballet?

Yeah, you know, our studio. (There, I said it.)

“There was a lot going on there that you guys didn’t know about,” I tell them.

Hannah is looking at me from across the table, a concerned frown pulling at her forehead.

“Am I in it?” asks Julia.

“Only in reference,” I say, “And the names are changed.” Or will be.

“Is my brother in it?” asks Jane-Ann.

“Well, yes, he’s a minor character. But it’s all good stuff. Nothing he would mind.”

We were together through elementary, junior high and high school. Most of us danced at the Center of Performing arts through at least part of childhood. We married and had kids around the same time. Hannah drove south from Long Beach, Jane-Ann flew in from Vermont. Julia never left. Everyone is chattering and inquisitive about my project except Hannah. She’s sipping unsweetened iced tea through a straw. Her silence is deafening.

I start to wonder if Julia, still the local, has any contact with those long ago personalities that figure so prominently in my story. Would she mention this? The Center of Performing Arts has changed hands since our day. Three of the people concerned are no longer on the planet. Another is quite old.

“No one is recognizable,” I throw in, in case anyone is nervous. But I’m not sure about that.

sellgeSpecifically, Rebecca, absent from this discussion and the focus of my memoir, is quite recognizable. How many seamstresses worked for a ballet company in our town in the eighties? Realistically, less than three.

So, anyone recognizing my name on a memoir, seeing the cover as I envision it: a white tutu-clad torso in front of a window, hands with needle and thread darning pleats, would pick it up, read the back, wonder, leaf through it skimming for names, recognize none. Perhaps put it down and walk away. I’m holding my breath through this thought. Yes, walk away. Put it down. It’s not for your eyes. Then whose eyes is it for?

Two years and 250 pages had passed when I was 99% sure my memoir was complete. Remembering my best friend Hannah’s silence, I decided to send the online link to her. But before I sent the document, I sent a text:

Hey Han, remember a while back I told you I was writing a memoir? I have a meeting with an agent coming up and, while I’m not sure how that will turn out, I wondered if you’d want to read it since your character as “my best friend” is prominent. This project began as a creative thesis for my MFA but since a few people have said I should submit it for publication I’ve decided to change names and some situations and go for it. You’ll recognize a lot of it even though everyone is disguised somewhat.

I waited. When Hannah didn’t answer right away, I began to panic. I imagined her scorn. Her eye rolls at the self-indulgence of it all. How could I explain that memoir is about perception and individual experience? Not a documentary or autobiography. Not journalism. But an attempt to make sense of life through writing with the intent to share a unique perspective.

I mentally scanned my manuscript for scenes of Hannah. I began to worry that perhaps she’d find a scene insulting or too revealing. Was I giving away her secrets by revealing mine? And yet these things are key to my story. I re-read it as if she were standing over my shoulder. My older sister, who also stars in my small coming-of-age circle, was the first to read it and signed off on my memories as either valid or too long ago for her to challenge. Would Hannah do the same? And what of Rebecca? And yet, this is not about her, it is about me.

About a week later my phone buzzed an incoming text from Hannah. Relief spread over me as I read:

Hey, I’m so sorry not to have replied sooner. Of course, I remember you telling us of your book! It sounds fabulous and I’d love to read it. Please send the link.”

And so, I did.

When I began my memoir, I had a story to tell about passion and obsession. And about death. I had a story to tell about growing up with strict discipline, both in a German household and a ballet studio, and what it was like to rebel against rigidity, looking for freedom of expression. Some of the things in my story are universal, and the things that are not, are intriguing. Or at least I think they are. Most people experience first love in those early adolescent years.

If anyone did pick up my memoir from a bookstore shelf, say Rebecca herself, what would she think? Have I represented her fairly? Have I made her someone she is not? Writing from journals that were as obsessive as my focus, I believe I captured her quite realistically, but perhaps not thoroughly. After all, I was caught up in my vision of her. I can’t know exactly how she saw herself or even how she saw me. I can guess that she might remember me as a troublemaker. Never one to fly under the radar, for better or worse.

Last spring, Moby, the nineteen-eighties musical maverick, slammed into public shame with the publication of his 2019 confessional memoir, Then it Fell Apart. Weeks after its release, actress, Natalie Portman, who is profiled as a love interest in the memoir, claimed in an interview with Harper’s Bazaar that the alleged relationship never occurred. Moby was left to defend his work in the public eye.

Initially brazen and self-righteous on social media, he quickly buckled. “As some time has passed,” Moby wrote in an Instagram post on May 25, 2019, just weeks after publication, “I’ve realized that many of the criticisms leveled at me regarding my inclusion of Natalie in Then It Fell Apart, are very valid. I also fully recognize that it was truly inconsiderate of me to not let her know about her inclusion in the book beforehand.”

It’s been about a week since I emailed the finished memoir to Hannah. And though I am not holding my breath or wringing my hands over her possible responses, in the back of my mind is the expectation that someday soon I will receive some sort of feedback and there will most likely be a mixture of positives and negatives. But I have made peace with the fact that writing is a public business and I am not the only personality at stake here. It’s a load off my mind to know she will not be taken by surprise someday in a bookstore if all goes well. And if she hates it, I will listen and alter what concerns her if I can do so without writing her out completely. But if I know Hannah, she would hate that even more.
__

Lisa Sellge is a classical ballet instructor and writer in the final throes of a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Alaska. Her work has appeared recently in Atticus Review, 3rd Street Beach Writers Anthology, and NatureWriters.com.

 

 

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§ 28 Responses to You Know That Book I’m Writing? You’re in It

  • You want her to be okay with it, but if she isn’t, will it keep you from publishing?

    • Lisa Pachuta says:

      Hi Matt, it is my hope that we can work out whatever issues she may have. I think it’s important that there is no blaming, no negativity, no defensive language in a memoir and there is none in mine. It’s simply a reflection on life. I sincerely believe she will enjoy it. But I’ll report back.

  • Lisa, if you’re still looking for an agent, I’d be interested in reading your manuscript – barbara@olswangerliterary.com.

  • dorothyrice says:

    I can so relate to this, Lisa. Thanks for sharing.

  • I am always interested in ballet.

  • Cheryl Levine says:

    Always a concern when writing memoir. Thanks for sharing.

  • Lindi Roze says:

    Good points. I can relate even with my blog essays

  • Many would relate to your conundrum. I liked “Why we write about ourselves” and the reasons and experiences of 20 memoirists to write their memoirs the way they did.

  • Lisa Pachuta says:

    Thank you for the recommendation, Iliana, I will definitely look for that book.

  • floatinggold says:

    Definitely an interesting topic. I have never written non-fiction, so I cannot say for sure how I would proceed. However, I thought about it in the past. Like you said – this is not to slander other people, or put them in a negative light on purpose. It is just meant to show how things were and how they were from YOUR perspective most of all. What are the chances that Hannah will read your book? The chances of people from my book reading my writing would be rather slim. Therefore, I probably wouldn’t mention anything. It just opens the door for problems.

    I think Moby’s and Portman’s situation was different because they are both famous and internationally recognized.

    • Hello floatinggold,

      I believe the chances that “Hannah” will read my book are very good because I sent it to her. But will “Rebecca” read it? I am extremely doubtful. I agree that mentioning it would open the door to problems. I am no longer in contact with some of these people and it seems invasive to connect after thirty years only to present my perspective on a memory I consider my own, even if others occupied it with me. My concern is geared more towards the people I still know, not wanting to upend longstanding friendships and family relations.

      You have a point about Moby and Portman being famous and therefore more susceptible to public judgement, gossip, and possible professional and personal repercussions. I had been following the release of his memoir and curious about reading it when Portman responded. In the midst of writing my craft thesis about this subject, I found it quite relevant to my research.

  • Thank you for writing this. I so relate, not because my story is anything like yours, but because I too have written an unpublished memoir manuscript. Although a few people who are in it have read it and rewarded me with positive feedback, I wonder what some of those who ‘done me wrong’ will think if it is ever published. I hope you publish.

    • Thank you, I hope so, too. There is always that option to call it “fiction,” still, as Kim Rosencraft’s husband said of her novel, Rush, “If I know what’s going to happen next, it’s hard to call it fiction.”

  • […] via You Know That Book I’m Writing? You’re in It — BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog […]

  • […] Yesterday on the Brevity Blog, Lisa Sellge wrote about sharing her finished manuscript with people in it, the hedging and self-protection writers do within that process. But even before the final draft, many writers fear a family explosion, resentment, or even legal action. […]

  • jeskybera says:

    Hi! I’m a dancer-memoirist too. I recently sent mine off for blurbs and gut-checks to a few people from the dance schools we attended together. At worst some people were polite, but they haven’t written any blurbs (at least not yet). At best, my book opened up memories and set off a lot of new revelations and processing. For a few women, the book has validated their own experience, and they have actually felt changed by it. That’s the memoir dream! I am wishing you well from here in Seattle, and I look forward to reading your book someday! Mine is coming November 🙂

  • d.p. Benjamin says:

    Your book sounds great. I’ll look forward to reading it. Earning an MFA in Alaska sounds like a perfectly reasonable premise for your next enthralling non-fiction work. I have embedded friends and acquaintances and a sister I never met in my mysteries so I still get asked “Am I in it?” Keep up the good work.

  • Wes Chyrchel says:

    Love the post Lisa, especially this quote, “But an attempt to make sense of life through writing with the intent to share a unique perspective.” And in that one sentence, I believe, is your answer. I’m of the camp to not notify characters, as those are your memories and the tendency to modify them to fit someone else’s interpretation would change your perspective. I assume you would want to keep your creative edge. The human condition is funny and though we’ve most likely heard similar stories of the interaction between people in a tribe, we haven’t heard your version. That’s special. All of my writings are about people I’ve interacted with in my business career. From company to company they keep making the same dumb mistakes. It would be easy for someone in my past to accuse me of writing about them. I’m so present to it, I even have a post title waiting in the wings, “Your so vain, I bet you thought this post was about you.”

    • Thank you, Wes. I hope you write the “You’re So Vain” post. It is a subject in itself and I’d love to mine your thoughts on it. Several of my supporting characters are actually blends of several personalities. In order to distinguish themselves someone would have to say, “I’m a third of this guy over here, but I said this exact thing to that person…” It was a way of condensing occurrences pertinent to the story but that would have, by themselves, gone down rabbit holes that distracted from the story’s trajectory. I manipulated timing and events as well, as in: this conversation happened at an earlier time or at that event not this one, but I didn’t need that other event so eliminated it. It doesn’t change the reality of the scene, just its time and place. And yet, adaptations such as these serve to hide the real people. They could say, “I wasn’t even there that day,” and they might be right.

      • Wes Chyrchel says:

        Definitely let me know when your book comes out Lisa. Piper’s dancing five days a week right now. She’s hoping to get on the dance team at school. Maybe your book will prepare me for what’s to come!

      • Oh jeez I hope not. The ballet world has cleaned up its act by leaps and bounds since the eighties. I’ve taught throughout Temecula and Murrieta and I promise you the studios are squeaky clean and protect their dancers fiercely. (But if you’d like to read The Seamstress I’ll send you the link.)

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