- Writing about OthersA (Continued) Conversation
After I'd accepted "She and I" by Maribeth Fischer for publication in the August 2018 issue of Fourth Genre, I asked her if she'd be willing to write a companion essay in which she explored the question—one that was salient for me and for reviewers of her essay when we first received it—of the qualms and considerations of writing about her sister, her nephews, and their illness.
In the back-and-forth between Maribeth and me as she composed and polished "Writing about My Sister," the companion essay, I found myself reaching out to other Fourth Genre contributors and editors to ask how they had handled these matters and what kinds of conversations I'd had with them at the time of publication. My editor's essay in that issue focused on some of this, some parts of the conversations we had.
It's a matter that I believe is vital to nonfiction writers—or should be—and a matter that cannot be revisited often enough: what is our responsibility in writing about other people, and how do we handle it? The question is especially difficult and vital when those others are people close to us, or minors, or unable (for any of a number of reasons) to have any say about it.
And so I invited several of these nonfiction writers to engage in an online conversation about how they've negotiated these questions in the writing and publishing that they've done, as well as what the feedback or consequences have been for them after publication. What follows are their remarks; each of them edited their own words and consented to have them made public.
—Laura Julier, editor [End Page 149]
I've written about my children many times. I run it by their father. I often run it by them, but they're minors, so it's more to gauge their response. I do think, as an adult, one has the power to get a child to sign off on content that might feel like a violation once they grow older. For me, the bottom line is, do I think my children, as adults, will feel embarrassed or exposed by the material? Small things: I never use their actual names; we do not have the same last name. Instead I might use an initial (H or S), or, in my memoir, when my son appears in the epilogue at age seven, I simply call him "the boy." Ultimately, I write about them less as they get older. And always, in every piece I write, self-awareness is the ultimate goal. This Dinty Moore line comes to mind: "Calling bullshit on yourself is one of the most essential skills of a memoirist."
I do believe that pain and injury are common experiences that drive us to write. Sometimes people behave badly. They abandon their children, or are addicts, or abusive, or whatever. And I believe we have the right to write about these situations (though self-awareness should still be the root of the story). I've been asked to talk about this over the past few months while touring to promote my memoir. In it I write about a semi-famous character who was married to my brother at the time of his suicide. In my experience she was a toxic addict who introduced him to hard drugs, cheated on him, and abandoned him. Soon after, he killed himself. I didn't want to write about her, but she had to be in the book in order to tell the full story. I chose to only show her in-scene, the few times I encountered her, and to stick to the facts. Ann Hood says in her "How to Write a Kickass Essay" podcast that showing people in detail, without judgment, allows the reader to draw their own conclusions. This worked mostly, though I never told her I was writing about her. Based on...