I recently read an interview with Joan Didion where she expands on her famous quote saying writers are always selling people out. Here is how she explains it:
“If you are doing a piece about somebody, even if you admire them tremendously and express that in the piece, express that admiration, if they’re not used to being written about … they’re not used to seeing themselves through other people’s eyes. So you will always see them from a slightly different angle than they see themselves, and they feel a little betrayed by that.”
Most people don’t understand that creative nonfiction is biased. It’s creative in that those of us who write it are using the facts (as we understand them) to write our way to a truth that is inherently personal. If we are writing from our own experience, we are sharing a perspective that is shaded in memory. We may write that, for example, that a little sister was forever whining or that a father was preoccupied with work but that sister and that father may remember it differently. The sister may remember that you were terribly bossy. The father might tell you that he was only distant during that difficult time when he was passed over for a promotion.
The truth is all of that. The truth is the bratty little sister and the bratty big sister. The truth is the worried father and the lonely child.
But when we write our stories down, they carry a weight that they don’t have when we’re telling stories around the dinner table during a family reunion. An essay published and out in the world has an authority that may feel threatening to the people featured in it.
When I talk to other writers about it and about their decision-making there’s a variety of responses. Some believe that speaking their truth takes precedence over the feelings of friends and family. Some always seek permission before taking pen to paper (or before sending it out for possible publication). But most of us take it step-by-step, piece-by-piece. We check in and we pull back. Or we write it all and then edit more. Some of us having written things we regret and some of us wish we had written with more honesty and less fear.
Personally I think we should write it all, write everything and write as true as we know how. But then I think before we give it to the world we have to edit with kindness and sensitivity.
For myself, I’ve certainly gone too far with work that is doggedly self-centered. I remember back when I was writing my personal blog way before blogging was anything anyone knew about and I wrote a pretty damning entry about my father. I didn’t bother to consider that he might be reading it and only heard later that he’d looked at that entry then called my sister to say, “She really hates me, doesn’t she?” I didn’t then and sure don’t know but I did during the time I was writing about. But I didn’t bother to shade what I was writing with the benefit of hindsight and so that entry sat bald and glaring, telling a truth that no longer needed to be told.
It was so easy to be caught up in my story – that time in my life where my feelings were so raw – and to forget that the people I were writing about weren’t static characters. I knew the happy ending (my eventual reconciliation with my dad) and didn’t consider that without current context my father just looked like a bad guy.
I’m fortunate that my father forgave me and I learned to be more cautious when I hit publish on a blog or send on a submission.
I’m curious about the rest of you writerly folk. Have you ever gone too far? Do you ever feel hemmed in by the expectations of friends and family? Do you talk about these things in your writer groups and with your writer friends?
How do you manage the challenge to be truthful in your work without violating the truth of others?