I’ve been sick twice in the last three weeks since coming back from AWP, and I’m still recovering, so I have not had the energy to produce my regular Sunday Spotlight column. But today I feel well enough to write a blog post and keep some semblance of momentum going.
I’ve been thinking these past few days about the risk of alienation and fallout with friends and loved ones to writers of memoir and personal essay. On Facebook, this week, I’ve seen several people post questions about this very topic. This was already on my mind because I have an essay brewing in my brain—but not yet put to paper (or more accurately, to screen)—that if written and published could quite possibly hurt and anger someone in my life to the point that our relationship would be irrevocably damaged. This relationship is already a precarious one, and whatever misgivings I may have will not prevent me from writing the essay. Once it is written, though, I will have to evaluate whether or not it makes its way into the world, which is an altogether other consideration than the writing of it.
This topic, about what is considered fair game and what is off limits to creative nonfiction writers, is one that gets brought up often, and nearly everyone has an opinion about it. Put simply, when you write about your own life, you will write about others. Life is relational. We are not monks living solitary existences in caves. Nearly every action of every day involves a relationship of some sort. Even Thoreau, living simply and alone in his cabin at Walden Pond, wrote of relationship, albeit that relationship was mostly with Nature, but it was still a relationship. And even then, Thoreau returned to society, giving up his solitary experiment after two years and once again interacting with others in his daily life. Relational.
So far I’ve been lucky as to not have experienced backlash to my personal writing. But the threat is always there I suppose. No matter how much care I take to be compassionate towards others in my writing, I have no control how any one person will react. This is another truth about living in the world. It is relational, and we have no control over anyone but ourselves.
This is one of the things that I love so much about personal essay and memoir: It, too, is relational. In the stories of others, we can see ourselves—even if our day to day experience is vastly different. Our hearts, our minds, our spirits share the fundamental core of experience.
A couple years ago at AWP in Seattle, I bought a copy of Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, edited by Joy Castro. At that time, I also ordered Joy Castro’s Island of Bones: Essays to be shipped to me. When I received my package from the University of Nebraska Press, they had sent me a duplicate copy of Family Trouble instead of Island of Bones. Because I am lazy, I did not return the book for the one I had ordered. Instead I decided I would just give the book away to someone who needed it. That was two years ago. See? Lazy!
This week I am giving away this perfectly unused copy of Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family. This book will not necessarily give you a definitive answer on what you should do if you face a troublesome response to your writing from family or friends because each situation and those involved are unique, but the stories within may offer solace and support and even a few ideas moving forward if you’re feeling tentative. Here’s how the University of Nebraska Press describes the book:
Whenever a memoirist gives a reading, someone in the audience is sure to ask: How did your family react? Revisiting our pasts and exploring our experiences, we often reveal more of our nearest and dearest than they might prefer. This volume navigates the emotional and literary minefields that any writer of family stories or secrets must travel when depicting private lives for public consumption.
Writers included are Jill Christman, Rigoberto González, Alison Bechdel, Dinty W. Moore, Sue William Silverman, Paul Lisicky, and Allison Hedge Coke, among many others.
Leave a comment below to be entered into the drawing. Sorry, I can only ship within the U.S.. The winner will be chosen from a random, blind drawing and announced here on the blog on Saturday, April 30. You have until then to enter. Good luck!