AWP2015: Other People’s Privacy: Secondary Characters in Nonfiction

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.17.02 PMPanelists: Marcia Aldrich, Emily Fox Gordon, Debra Monroe (moderator), John T. Price (replacing Bob Shacochis), and Robin Hemley

These superb panelists discussed how they strive to craft fully nuanced secondary characters. You need to make your secondary characters as well rounded, nuanced, and fallible as you make yourself.

Speaking first, Debra Monroe stressed that people in a writer’s life will deal with being in the work, or they won’t. It really can be that simple, and maybe the people you want in your orbit, as a writer, are the people who can deal with being written about. But then Monroe said that for years she felt fine sacrificing another person’s privacy for art, but once her work received wider recognition, she could no long ignore the feelings of others. Monroe’s craft advice: “If you write about people you love, write about them well, which is to say, complexly, and that will improve your writing.” Neither you, nor your secondary characters, are a pure hero or a pure villain. According to Monroe, it turns out that “the ethical decision to be fair is the best craft decision, too.”

Marcia Aldrich said that her thoughts about these issues change from year to year. Aldrich joked that nonfiction writing is about “how to alienate friends and lose family.” The audience laughed, as did I, but it was a nervous laughter. Aldrich rightly sensed the need to name “the thing that wants telling in the age of anxiety.” This kind of anxiety is not new, but Aldrich suggested that out of the growing visibility of memoir (over the past twenty years or so), there has grown an “anxiety about facts, ethics, and writing about other people.” Aldrich said, “Applied ethics won’t save us from our conundrums,” so one needs, first, “to cast a cold eye on the self.” While secondary characters think of themselves as people, “the only authorization is the aesthetic of art.” Aldrich agreed with Monroe “that the best way to handle our anxieties is to write well.”

Emily Fox Gordon did not start writing about familial people until her parents had died, which made things easier, she thought. Still, her siblings have been “wonderful” and her writing “has brought [them] closer.” Gordon noted that “the stakes are intimate in personal memoir.”

John T. Price had some hilarious stories about friends and their reactions that were completely opposite to Price’s fear fantasies. Price stressed the idea “of a self who may offer compassion and mercy and may extend grace to our writing.” In addition, Price welcomed the “constellation of meaning we cannot predict” that ripples out from our published work.

Gone are the days, suggested Robin Hemley, that Truman Capote can dash off a secondary character like Bobby Rupp and change details of Rupp’s story to serve the narrative of “In Cold Blood.” The seemingly small changes that Capote made in Rupp’s story (in the book) had a long-lasting impact on Rupp’s life (in his real life). This serves as a useful warning to writers who should be concerned about the ethics of using others in their work.

In the Q&A, both Aldrich and Monroe said they prefer not to write about their children, and rarely do, holding their offspring in a private sphere, while Hemley said he writes about his children and his wife, frequently. Hemley noted that at first his wife had asked him not to write about her family, but he did. His wife’s family now loves his writing about them—and asks him to do more.

Also in the Q&A, there were some excellent examples of how the panelists realized that a character’s actions (or a writer’s response to those actions) could be softened in certain circumstances. That softening is not a weak impulse but an impulse toward fairness that helps establish boundaries.

Writers often struggle with how to fully render people who may be friends, parents, or siblings, and who may be complicit in moral failings. But as readers we long for the full story, and part of writing the full story is developing well-rounded characters, no matter how small their role.

Here’s your take-away, from Aldrich: “Make the writing worth the cost and prepare to own the loss.”

Renée E. D’Aoust is the author of Body of a Dancer (Etruscan Press), a Foreword Review’s “Book of the Year” finalist. Recent honors include her sixth “Notable Essay” listing in Best American Essays. For more information, please visit: www.reneedaoust.com

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Visit Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies to browse our recent issues (Fall 2014 and Spring 2015), explore our classroom resources, and to subscribe to the journal (it’s free!).

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