- Aftershocks of Memoir
In recent years, much discussion about creative nonfiction has centered on the ethical parameters of writing real life stories, questioning how writers can "keep it real" in pursuit of verifiable and less verifiable levels of truth. The issue is made more complicated if we ponder the ethical parameters of publishing stories that, even if they are the writers' own, overlap with the stories of others. Telling your own story usually means bringing on stage with you family members, people with whom you've shared intimate relationships, and representing or reproducing interactions and conversations that, until you publish them, were private and unknown to anyone but those who lived through them. Researching others' stories in order to bring their experiences to life may confront the writer with essential information that those individuals may not themselves have chosen to reveal. A sense of allegiance to real people, places, and historical events draws many writers to memoir, but what happens when that allegiance requires revealing long hidden truths? What is the nature of our allegiance to family, to friends, to community? When does it take precedence over our allegiance to "reality"? How can a writer anticipate and respond to reactions from family, friends, or whole communities? As Leila Philip, one of the participants in the following roundtable, has observed, "There are legal questions and family questions, questions of loyalty and even of the value of silence in certain instances." In her view, publishers have handled the question of fall-out glibly, with "an almost macho, torpedoes-be-damned approach." Yet the life cycle of a memoir doesn't end with its publication; like an earthquake, whether it creates a major or a minor seismic event, aftershocks may be felt for a long time and have their own scale of intensity.
This roundtable discussion on the "aftershocks" of publishing nonfiction began as a panel organized by Leila Philip at the 2009 Associated Writing Program's Annual [End Page 145] Conference. It brought together three authors of well-regarded and somewhat risk-taking memoirs, all of which, in different ways, explore the telling of difficult truths. Their presentations focused on the consequences, both bad and good, of having told real life stories long held as secrets that involved family, friends, and community. Natalia Rachel Singer is the author of a memoir, Scraping by in the Big Eighties, and coeditor of Living North Country: Essays on Life and Landscapes in Northern New York. Her writing has appeared in many magazines and journals, including the American Scholar, Creative Nonfiction, and the Seneca Review, and she has been a recipient of a nonfiction literature grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts. She teaches creative writing and environmental literature at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY. Leila Philip is the author of the award-winning memoir A Family Place: A Hudson Valley Farm, Three Centuries, Five Wars, One Family, and the travel memoir The Road through Miyama, which received the 1990 PEN Martha Albrand Citation for Nonfiction. She has also received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. She is an associate professor of English at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. Bob Cowser, Jr. is the author/editor of four books of nonfiction, including the New York Times Editor's Choice Dream Season: A Professor Joins America's Oldest Semi-Pro Football Team; Scorekeeping: Essays from Home; and Green Fields: Crime, Punishment, and a Boyhood Between, recently published in the Engaged Writers Series at the University of New Orleans Press. He is a professor of English at St. Lawrence University and honored visiting faculty member of the Ashland University Low-Residency MFA. For this roundtable, the three writers have revisited and revised their earlier presentations.
I'm going to talk about some of the interpersonal fallout you can experience after you've published a memoir: the kind you can anticipate and maybe guard against before the book is even in print. But there's no getting around the fact that when you are writing about...