Sonya Huber writes:
Edith, I liked your post on Bill Roorbach. He is a great and generous guy, and it shows in his reaction to you.
As a memoirist, I share stories and words, but I also keep my word. Many writers of creative nonfiction wrestle with whether they have the right to craft certain experiences into an essay or book if those experiences overlap with the lives of others. The rub is that stories and lives always do overlap. I’ve been thinking lately about how much of my role as a memoirist includes the keeping of secrets.
Some secrets are positive, allowing a person the space to reshape their own identity, to heal in the aftermath of trauma, to redefine themselves without the stereotypes that cling to an old way of life. Other secrets are formed by shame and social convention. Many writers who I admire have aired secrets as a way of helping along cultural change, urging society to look at personal pain and to understand that patterns of pain are held in place and created by that silence. I have chosen to do that too. But not always.
The writing advice I’ve received is to write first, and then in the editing, to decide what to share with the world and what to keep private. In practice, what happens for me is that the secrets I am bound to keep always start off as central on the page, and then I navigate away from them into other topics. In both Opa Nobody and Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, I bumped again and again into sensitive family issues that I felt I did not have the right to air or the ability to discuss in a rounded way. At points I thought there was no way forward because I could not relate a cohesive story without including the elephant in the room of my mind. In both cases, the story turned out differently because I shaped it in such a way to steer around a particular elephant.
The question, “Is this the whole truth?” is the same as the question of whether we are our true selves when someone asks us in the grocery store how we are and we say, “Fine.” All faces and masks are partial truths.
With the writing of good memoir, I hope that instead of glossing over a secret, what I am doing is tunneling beneath it. Often, I think it’s easy to have one hook, one person to blame, one explanation for the way our lives have turned out. Turning to figure out multiple story lines in my own life as a way to respect the privacy of others has allowed and challenged me to see my life as being formed by multiple influences.
So I sympathize very much with Bill Roorbach’s dilemma to take out personal stories following the wishes of a family member, and I admire that choice. As writers, we’re doing two jobs. We’re serving the needs of readers, and we’re also bound in a web of family and community. Sometimes a person portrayed in a piece of nonfiction objects to their story being told to strangers or told in a way that seems incorrect to their memory. But other times, I think what hurts the people we turn into characters is that some new question is raised about the way the author might see this “character.” Is that how you think of me? Do I only merit two sentences? Is the color of my shirt the most discerning characteristic about me?
The problem always comes down to the editing. We start with the full cloth of life and cannot include the full truth with the paltry string of letters on the page. So we have to focus somewhere, and in that process we cut and elide other angles and other truths and complex portraits. And sometimes we decide to make these quick sketches in order to leave deeper complexities and questions buried. Sometimes that is our job, but the exciting and challenging and ethically urgent nature of nonfiction is such that only the writer knows which choice is right for which situation. Nonfiction is not just about us. It’s always about us in relation to our community, our dead, our children and our futures, and the world.
In : Writing