Assay@NFN15: “Writing the Difficult Other”

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 Sarah Tomlinson, Liz Prato, Sarah Einstein

Sarah Tomlinson: wrote memoir about her eccentric, mentally-ill father – everyone but him realized he was delusional – but her hope was that she had rendered him with enough compassion that people would understand her dad. She says that there was no abuse, but lies, neglect, and abandonment – and notes that people’s reaction was that there wasn’t enough abuse to matter so much

Liz Prato: had written a memoir about her dad’s and brother’s descent into addiction and mental illness, and their suicides within a year of each other, and thought she was done with them. Then, while clearing out father’s house, she found 2 things: a list of all the people he’d had sex with, including the name of her brother, and a list of definitions of words related to pedophilia. How to write about her father now? The father she knew was not a bad man, but molesters and rapists are bad men. How to make sense of this? She read Emerson’s essay “Compensation,” in which he says every evil has its good. She came to a place of compassion – not, “my father is a monster,” but “my father has a monster in him.”

Sarah Einstein: wrote a book about a relationship with a homeless, mentally ill man with whom she had a friendship. How to represent on the page his delusional reality and let it exist as a voice, as his own truth, and not in a way that makes a spectacle or gimmick of it? During a conversation where he’s convinced his sister has died, he mentions he molested her when they were young – this moment was the most tense moment of their relationship, and the book. Einstein wondered whether to omit it, and did for a while, but realized he had said it and it was his to say, and she needed to allow him to speak for himself.

[then turns to roundtable discussion, including audience]

LP: It’s too easy to write the “everyone pick up your pitchfork” piece – there are no pure villains or heroes.

SE: How can you capture moments of tenderness or genius – make these people as well-rounded and complex as possible so readers don’t reduce these people to what they think they already know about molesters/homeless/mentally ill/etc.

LP: example of Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City

SE: If the person is a sociopath, if there are very negative qualities (cruelty, lack of empathy, etc.), you don’t need to label the person – just put that behavior on the page and let the reader perceive that for themselves. But also ask, in what ways is the person bigger or more than their sociopathy or dysfunction, so we’re not focused on the pathology, but on the bad behavior and its effects on you and others.

ST: her background was in literary fiction and NF, but it was working in ghostwriting that helped her write difficult characters – usually, these were traumatic stories of drug abuse, violence, trauma, and it helped her to help them find the compassion/empathy/complexity, and this in turn helped her with her own memoir.

LP: autobiography is a research-checked factual account, but memoir is the story of what you remember – it might not be totally accurate, but do your best to get it right.

SE: The people who have harmed you have forfeited the right to fact-check you – the fact that they’ve harmed you will inform the reader that the harm has affected how you remember the events.


Heidi Czerwiec is a poet, essayist, translator, and critic who has recent work appearing in Angle, Able Muse, and The Boiler Journal.  She is the author of Self-Portrait as Bettie Page and the forthcoming A is for A-ke, the Chinese Monster. She teaches at the University of North Dakota, where she is poetry editor for North Dakota Quarterly.

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