Thursday, July 20, 2017

Good Behavior for Memoirists

Blogging is nonfiction, creative journalism, sometimes fiction, and sometimes it's memoir on the hoof. 
A big question for me when I'm writing about my life is how to handle other people in it.

I usually don't write much about other people because I don't want to use them, or get them wrong. 
(I don't much like writing such as David Sedaris's that relies on using other people's intimate lives for material.) 
But some people are integral to my life, like my father, and I do want to talk about that, and about them. Then I wrestle with how much I need to expose them in writing to get my story across.

What I wrote yesterday, for instance, was a lot longer to start, with examples to illustrate what I meant by my father not always being "nice." But then I figured my main point was that I couldn't trust him to be nice, and now that he's dead, I'm released from that problem; you could fill in the blanks for the details, which don't much matter.

I'd hesitated to write about that at all, but I was surprised when I told a friend who'd had a good relationship with her late parents that my father's death had improved our relationship, and she burst out, "Me too!"
So, I figure it's A Thing, but not a thing people say much––and maybe simply because of that, it's worth saying, and I should say it.
So I did.

The obituary my sister wrote for our father is a good example of how unreliable memoir is. She didn't end up using Wordsworth, but she did write about our father almost soley from her perspective, with a result so glowing I can barely see the man I knew through it. 

Fair enough, it was far more important to her, so I just offered a little editing. I didn't much care what she wrote until she e-mailed the obit to friends, saying we had written it together.
Aargh! Then I was angry that she would present her experience as mine. No!
It was a great reminder of how I want to be careful about how I write about other people.

From Tracy Kidder's Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction
Some Basic Rules of Good Behavior for the Memoirist
Say difficult things. Including difficult facts.

Be harder on yourself than you are on others. The Golden Rule isn't much use in memoir. Inevitably you will not portray others just as they would like to be portrayed. But you can at least remember that the game is rigged: only you are playing voluntarily.

Try to accept the fact that you are, in company with everyone else, in part a comic figure.

Stick to the facts.


gz said...

and my facts can be different from your facts because we arrive from a different direction.

Frex said...

BINGO, gz!
So true---and which facts we select, and which we leave out, make a huge difference too.

ArtSparker said...

Ha, my brother insisted on writing an obituary for my father, which seemed to give him great satisfaction, just as he insisted on my former father being dressed in a suit for cremation (he avoided being involved in the actually dressing, but we (women) in the room had to ask for his (my brother's) help with the tie.

Anonymous said...

My step father died many years ago. Lets say he was a fully rounded person with flaws and some good points. I didn't actually like him much, but since I had already left home that didn't matter. I watched in amazement over the following years how Mum reinvented him. She forgot all his annoying and horrible ways and solely remembered his good points. It was most odd! I think we do tend to focus on the good bits and filter out the arguements and upsets. It's part of grieving I think. With my own Dad I focus on his gentleness, his love of walking and gardening, his gentle humour, I down play how his pretentiouness and social climbing wife irritated the beejeebas out of me. That's life.