Daily, friends of CNF writers react like this
For some months now, I have been sitting on an essay that will probably cost me a friendship. It will also, in all likelihood, hurt a few people who don’t deserve it. Worst case scenario, it could destroy a life, and that life might well be mine.
Sometimes I reread the essay, toggling back and forth between potential markets, and I almost submit. I go so far as to write a cover letter, attach the essay to an email, and I hover my mouse over the “send” button. Then I stop, remove the essay, and I walk away from my computer. I think: everything that I’ve said in here is true, but maybe it still isn’t worth it.
And then, a few minutes later, I come back to my desk and do it all again.
Earlier this year, at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Minneapolis, I went to a panel on secondary characters in creative non-fiction. The question being asked was this: what right do you have—does anyone have—to tell someone else’s story? (By extension, I suppose, what right does anyone have to write creative non-fiction at all?)
What if the story that you want to tell is yours but at the same time a tiny slice of someone else’s? Does this make you, in a way, some kind of literary Peeping Tom? Or maybe not a Peeping Tom so much as the person who pulls the curtain back for the whole neighbourhood to see: the whistleblower, the Gawker of the deeply personal and hidden. Someone might call that unfair, or indecent. Most people, after all, do not go about their lives expecting that they’ll end up in a book.
The general consensus among the panelists was that the writer has a responsibility to tell a story in the truest way possible—that is, to make sure, as much as they are able, that they consider the experiences of all others spoken about, all others outside of the self. If that obligation is met, then good luck, sir, and Godspeed.
In other words: we will try to be fair about it, but we will write about you nonetheless.
People talk a lot about bravery in creative non-fiction these days, I am finding. Essays are brave and harrowing or they are brave and beautiful or they are brave and compassionate or some other combination. They flay, they excoriate, they lay bare, and we laud writers for doing this. We ask more of them. We say: do it again. Do it again, and go deeper.
“We live in a confessional age,” a friend said to me some months ago. He didn’t mean it kindly. “People want to say everything now, and they always want applause for it.”
Bravery: noun. Plural: braveries.
- Brave spirit or conduct; courage; valour.
- Showiness; splendour; magnificence
This idea of showiness interests me. It seems to imply that bravery by its very nature requires some sort of audience—a person(s) outside of oneself to acknowledge and interpret the acting in spite of fear that courage requires. So if someone calls a piece of creative non-fiction brave, does that mean they’re also, in a way, acknowledging the showiness of it? The need for an audience, to both see and be seen.
If I were to tell you, for example, that I spent a very large part of this past summer—and the spring before that, and also, yes, the winter—wanting to be dead, what would that do? What does this say, what does it do, the act of sharing a secret like this in so public a manner?
I spent my evenings in Minneapolis in my hotel bathtub, reading Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. I read about Nelson’s grief and found myself wondering about the object of her sorrow—what this person was doing now, where they were living, how it felt to know that there was a book out there that had come into being, in some way, because of you.
At the time I was in the early stages of my own sadness. I was not entirely stricken yet—or perhaps the truth is that I was already sad but unaware of how bad things were going to get—but I could feel it coming. There were rumbles in the ground beneath my feet and whispers on the wind.
I think that we have always, on some level, lived in a confessional age. We’ve always had stories of ourselves that we’ve wanted to tell. The difference is that today we have more tools to amplify and share, commiserate, and connect. The world that we live in now is simply a magnified reflection of our need to stand hand-in-hand with someone else, to have someone reach out and say yes, I believe you, I feel the same things, I understand.
But then, of course, telling a secret to a confidante is not the same thing as publishing an essay, ripping yourself—and others—open to the world.
When I was in university, one of my instructors talked about a metric for creative non-fiction writing and publication that went something like this: she would write anything about anybody, but when it came time to publish, she would let herself be guided by this question: will this essay hurt someone? Will it cause them harm?
She didn’t care about embarrassing the subjects of her essays, or about exposing them to the unflattering glare of a writer’s peculiar eye. But if she knew that someone would be hurt by what she had to say, she would keep the piece to herself, like some kind of rotten gem.
For a long time I thought this was the best way to approach the aspect of secondary characters, and from there, really, non-fiction as a whole.
Things changed, eventually, as they are wont to do.
Another part of me believes that this friendship I speak of, this friendship that I don’t want to lose, will wobble and shake if the essay comes out, but somehow survive intact. Maybe, some part of me whispers, it will even make our friendship stronger.
The rest of me knows better.
Lucy Grealy, author of Autobiography of a Face
After the publication of her memoir, Autobiography of a Face, the American poet Lucy Grealy was often asked how she could remember all of the conversations, all of the history that she’d had with her family when she was young.
“I didn’t remember it,” she said. “I wrote it. I’m a writer.”
And so I wonder about this, too. You remember something one way and write about it, build your life around it for years and then find out, some day in the future, that that’s not what happened. Does the truth of what you lived in those intervening years simply disappear? Does the truth multiply, become many-pronged instead of one-sided, a cacophony of voices instead of one long note?
Are you still brave if it turns out that what you wrote about was wrong?
If you write something that carries the spirit of the thing that happened to you, or to someone else—even if, like Lucy Grealy, you have to fill in certain details—does that still count?
What use is there, exactly, in asking all of these questions?
There are always three versions of a story, my aunt once said to me. Your side of it, their side of it, and then what actually happened sitting right there, in between.
This is something that I think we forget, at times, about creative non-fiction. Our polished versions of what-has-happened and what-has-been. In the reveal, there is a kind of cloaking—you are showing the world something, yes, but in choosing what to say, and how to say it, you are hiding yourself in other ways. Letting some things have spotlight and not others, and in so doing letting these other things fade away altogether, as though they have never been at all.
Like this essay, for example, which says certain things but refrains from saying others. You are explaining, someone might say, but in a way that’s clear as mud. A brave essay means no cloaking, no pretense. Get in, get out, and say what you have to say. None of this meandering bullshit.
I like to meander, though. Sometimes you find the best parts of something that way.
I have been lying, a little: I have submitted the essay. I’ve sent it out to a few places and it has already been sent back to me. Part of me wonders if this is a sign—if I should quit while I’m ahead, while everything still lies unspoken, and shove it back into a drawer.
It is hard to quit, though, when you feel like you have something to say.
A few years ago I dated a man who told me that he was wary of non-fiction and its powers, even though he was himself a non-fiction writer.
“I don’t want to be one of the people that you write about,” he said.
As soon as he said it I wanted to put him in an essay. The urge was uncontrollable. Eventually I did write about him, and it caused a great deal of hurt, and I am not sorry about this, even now.
Correction: I am sorry that he was hurt by the essay. Deeply so. I am not sorry for writing it. I would write another, given the chance, if the words pressed me strong enough.
People have called my essays brave, have said to my face that it must take a lot of chutzpah to put certain things out into the world. In truth, there is no chutzpah. There are places that I will not go in my essays, people and things I will not explore, and true bravery, I think, would mean going deep into those places and returning with something, however small a scrap.
Or perhaps it just means that for me, in writing as in life, there are things that I will freely talk about, who cares about the consequences, and things that I will not. Maybe that is a kind of bravery, especially if it comes with a corresponding excavation of the soul. If the light that you shine on yourself is just as—perhaps even more—unflinching than the light you shine on others, perhaps that’s saying something. It can be its own kind of penance. Perhaps all that you can hope for is some sense of what you want to talk about, and an idea that someone out there in the world will understand you, understand themselves, as a result of this little bit of digging, and that can be worth it, no matter the friends that you might lose along the way.
But then, how dare you, someone might reasonably say. What right do you have to go mucking about in someone else’s life, even if only through writing about it?
I have no response to this. None. Is it fair, to write a subjective version (yours) of the truth and expect to be lauded for it, expect that someone will read it and think, Wow, So-and-So has gone out on a rickety limb here and deserves to be applauded, whatever the hurt they might have caused?
Also, despite whatever else this essay might say, I am not so cavalier about my friendships so as to easily toss them aside when an opportunity comes along.
But here’s the thing: we keep on writing anyway, and the excavations happen almost regardless of whether we want them to or not. Regardless of whether I want them to or not.
I am not sure if this makes me brave, or a bad person, or a fool.
It is very likely that the friendship I speak of, and worry about, will end anyway, whether I publish the essay or keep it hidden forever. In truth, it is already ending.
This is a point in favour of publishing the piece, I won’t deny it.
Another possibility: I publish the essay, and nothing happens. Sometimes the stories that matter the most to you do not even register for other people, even when you want them to so badly.
And still, the essay sits on my computer. Existing nowhere, existing everywhere. Waiting, brimming with light.
And what if I told you that there are still unbearable days now, days when I wish I was dead although they are less than they have been, and the only thing that has saved me has been the writing down of things and the desire to shape my life into some semblance of coherence and present it?
I confess, I want to say. I confess, I am sorry, I confess.
I will keep on confessing. I am not sorry about that, not at all.
Amanda Leduc’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Butter, The Rumpus, PRISM International, ELLE Canada, Prairie Fire, Tampa Review Online, Tincture Journal, and many other publications across Canada, the US, the UK, and Australia. She was longlisted for the 2014 Canada Writes competitions in both fiction and non-fiction, and previously shortlisted for TNQ’s Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest, the 2012 PRISM International Short Fiction Contest, the 2008 PRISM International Short Fiction Contest, and the 2007 Prairie Fire CNF Contest. She is the non-fiction editor of Big Truths, the essay companion site to Little Fiction. Her novel, THE MIRACLES OF ORDINARY MEN, was published in 2013 by Toronto’s ECW Press. She lives in Hamilton, Ontario, where she is at work on her next book.