Assay@NFN15: “Rewriting Those We Love”

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Margot Singer, Lee Martin, Dinah Lenney, David McGlynn, Ann Peters

Margot Singer: This panel examines the balance of big subjects and the personal – when does the personal become too personal? Is it possible or fair to tell the truth? What will happen when you do? She cites the cautionary tale of Mark Doty’s “Return to Sender,” in which his father won’t acknowledge him after the publication of Firebird.

Dinah Lenney: She cites the two opposite impulses of how to deal with this issue: “go tell the story, but tell it with love” versus “fuck ‘em.” She notes the usual things to consider: what are your motives in telling this story? anger/resentment/blame? are you trying to be the hero/victim? All you can do is get it as right as you can get it. But if you don’t wait until everyone’s dead to publish it, what are your rules? She notes that what ends up hurting or pissing off people often is not what you think they’re going to be hurt about, so you can’t always predict. But she says that if art legitimates cruelty, it isn’t worth it – art should strive to be kind – if it isn’t, it isn’t art.

David McGlynn: memoirists tend to write about families because they note that their family stories tend to trump their friends’, because they’ve had a front-row seat to dysfunction. Families so often are held together by silence and “forgetting.” Ask, is the blowback something I can handle? The consequences are rarely as catastrophic as we fear – even when people get pissed, they move on. There’s something inherently hostile and violent about writing about other people, but I will do it again. What matters the most is telling the truth, and a memoir is only good if it’s well-written.

Lee Martin: When you write about the family, you’re trying to make family members come alive again on the page – if you do it with resentment or nostalgia, both are untrue and a betrayal to the people we want to portray. The best path is to practice empathy, to make no more or no less of a person than they are, to try and understand a person from the inside. Strategies to increase empathy and therefore honesty (and thereby decrease betrayal):

  1. move the narrative camera somewhere outside the situation being portrayed.
  2. write about yourself in 3rd person to allow for some more detachment or objectivity.
  3. imagine the other person as a child to see how it changes your understanding of them.
  4. pose a question and speculate on the answers (phrases like “Maybe…,” “Perhaps…,” and “I like to imagine” are your friends here).

Do this writing activity: think of someone who hurt you (a small or a big betrayal) and write about it from your POV as the one who suffered. Then shift the camera using one of the strategies above to see how it changes your understanding of the event.

Ann Peters: Why is it that, when we write about family, they become flatter characters? She shares the experience of writing about her father, a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired architect and developer, whom she did not want to reduce to an easy dyad or cliché. But we’re often more generous with a literary text or memory than we are with a person in real life, so turning them into characters paradoxically allows them more latitude.


Heidi Czerwiec is a poet, essayist, translator, and critic who has recent work appearing inAngle,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.