Writers’ minds always seem to be turning. We have experiences like everyone else, but are usually imagining ways to use that moment in practical writing– a tactile description of dad’s rough hands, the sound of a toddler’s giggle, the mixed feelings of attending a close friend’s wedding while you’re still single. Universal experiences, but told like we’re the first one naming it in some deeper, meaningful way. But yet, we can’t be too different, too writerly to be unrelatable.
So what kind of person should writers be?
In “Kirk Wisland on the Essayist’s Conundrum: A 3-Sided Coin Flip,” he muses about if writers are obligated to be good people. Yes. No. Or maybe. This dilemma brings up the issue of writing honestly in memoir, like everyone you know is dead and their opinions don’t matter, or does that just make you a jerk to write so frankly? Non-writers wouldn’t dare speak things some writers feel compelled to put on paper.
For my own writing about my semester in England, I wrote some very honest first impressions of new friends I made, one description not entirely flattering. I never thought this friend would ever read my writing, because, well, he’s just not interested in most of my passions and isn’t kind enough to fake it. Except for the one day he did.
I was doing a reading at my college of an essay about my first day in Liverpool, and I didn’t think any of my friends would really care to come listen to me read for 20 minutes when they could be doing their own homework. Or watching Netflix. But this guy unexpectedly told me just a half hour before that he was coming to support me and my writing. I was surprised and flattered, but then guilty for what I knew I would be forced to read about him, real name included, in a small room of professors and peers.
I got through the reading without too much awkwardness, and audience murmurs and giggles were at all the appropriate moments. Afterwards, I went to greet my friend, and the first thing he said was, “Is that really what you think of me?” I was hoping he’d forget that one line, but I mumbled some excuse about that being before I really knew him, though he hadn’t changed a bit in the time since. We’re still friends and all is well, but it made me question what I should include in my writing.
Memoir is personal by nature. I can’t change what happened or how I felt, so should I really edit my thoughts before they hit the page? I don’t think so, at least not in this case. But what if the subject was much deeper, potentially hurtful, beyond friends giving each other a hard time? Then it gets tricky.
I’ve always been a firm believer in the truth, and haven’t run into many deeper issues of writing about life the way I see it, but what if I had a different, harder life? Would I have the courage to tell it? Sometimes the honesty about the pain in life can be the beauty of a book, like in our Advisory Editor Joy Castro’s The Truth Book, where she writes of growing up adopted into a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses and running away at 14. Author Ariel Gore says in her review of the book,
“A brave and lyrical work about all that the human spirit can survive—and what it cannot. Before I picked up this book, I knew nothing about Jehovah’s Witnesses beyond what they told me at the door, knew little about what it might feel like to be adopted, but I identified so deeply with this memoir because of the sheer humanity of these individuals and my total trust in the narrator. I’m savoring the inexplicable sense of hope it leaves on my tongue.”
When we write the unashamed truth, readers trust us; they connect, and I think that’s our goal in nonfiction. So if we choose to write the truth, should I be a better person so telling the truth doesn’t hurt so much? Sometimes telling the truth in a narrative is hard because it points out my own flaws, or the flaws of those I love. But when it’s divulging a problem with someone I actually don’t mind punching on the page, does that just make me mean to say it?
Wisland thoughtfully goes through his three responses, but his ultimate conclusion is important:
“Maybe it’s the maybe. The questioning. Maybe by constantly interrogating our motives, engaging in self-dissection, keeping the rock-tumbler in perpetual motion, we polish some integral component. Maybe in the act of living as a writer, of being an essayist, we reorient and redefine ourselves.”
We create our writing, and it shapes us in return. Whether we are very upfront, deceptive, or hiding truths, the point is that we are trying and questioning who we are, or at least who we present ourselves to be and how we present others on our page.