- Please Have the Conversation
In this volume of Fourth Genre, you’ll find an essay by Maribeth Fischer that, in its explorations, reveals things about her sister and her nephews and matters of their health. It sits side by side with another essay she wrote, at my invitation, an essay exploring and explicating an issue that arose in writing her original piece. It’s an issue that has generated a lot of conversation, both among reviewers and interns, and between Maribeth and me. You can read some of that conversation in her essay. It’s a matter, she writes, that never goes away for her, and I have to add, it’s one that seems to recur over and over, in conference presentations and sidebars, in editorial discussions, in teaching, and in my own writing of nonfiction.
How do I write about what’s on my mind, what concerns me, what’s happened to me, what I’ve done and said, what choices I’ve made, what obstacles and conundrums I’ve encountered, what I’ve bumped my head against and wrestled with—how do I do that and not also write about other people in ways that those others find inappropriate or offensive or just plain wrong? Do I have the right, one might as well ask, to the material of my life?
I first encountered the question when I was a student in a graduate program, and, having submitted an essay draft, was surprised and bothered that it wasn’t distributed for workshop. Over beer and peanuts in the dark Rathskellar in the student union, my professor gently suggested that perhaps it wasn’t an appropriate story to be writing, or rather, to be sharing. It was a piece about how I had once allowed someone for whom I cared deeply to talk me into doing nothing while he tried to kill himself. What I thought I heard my professor say was that it was too powerful, too disturbing, maybe [End Page v] shouldn’t be talked about publicly. But I’m certain now, with the distance of decades, that I didn’t hear his feedback clearly, nor open myself up to probing deeper into what he might have been trying to help me ponder. I’m pretty sure I remember reacting—silently or aloud, I can’t be sure—by articulating some version of a response I’ve since heard too often: “It’s my story, my life—you can’t tell me what I can and cannot write.”
In fact, it might have been that he was trying to tell me I clearly wasn’t ready to write an essay about this—that is, that I evidently couldn’t do anything except merely record what happened. That it was not enough simply to lay it all out there for all to see, but to make something of it, to unearth the real story embedded in this experience I’d drafted, which was that somehow and for some reason, I had been willing to follow my friend into a very dark place. Finding the essay in that experience would have required me to look carefully at what there was in me that had been willing to be complicit in someone else’s death, how I was implicated in this choice, and what I now (or then, in the present of writing it) made of it all. And then, I might have been able to write an essay, taking up for consideration issues such as our obligations to one another, and to ourselves, which is not necessarily the same thing, in matters of life and death.
That piece never went anywhere except back into a folder. As is so often the case, passing years helped me not only to understand my choices that morning (and afterwards) with my friend, but also to articulate to myself (and eventually to others) what it is that makes an essay and when it is that it’s a piece of writing we want to send out into the world. Absent from the conversation and my thoughts at the time, however, was any consideration of what putting this event into print...