To thine own self be true.
Above all else, be kind.
Can we be both? Should we? And just how far does "kind" extend?
I've been thinking a lot lately about the treatment of the scenes and, by association, the characters who appear in my blogs, creative nonfiction and memoir. Real life, particularly when we fallible human beings interact with one another, is kaleidoscopal. Real people, myself included, are complex. None of us are saints. None of us are devils. We need to remember that. I need to remember that.
My advisor asked me at the beginning of the semester, "When your book comes out, who's going to hate you?" As a memoirist who received a large amount of very public, often vitriolic response to her own latest book, her question is neither idle nor unfounded. I've been thinking lately about that. About my responsibility to my material. About our responsibilities as writers, as readers. What we can expect of one another. What we do.
In my writing, I often use conversation excerpts, descriptions of scenes and characters that are a hair's breadth away from reality. I say a hair's breadth because I don't walk around with a video camera strapped to my forehead, so every recollection is from my own, admittedly limited, perspective. The distancing of time, life circumstances and the haze of memory often colors those moments, and so of course none of them will be 100 percent objectively accurate. Assuming there is an objective reality in the first place, which is a different entry altogether.
An exercise I had my students do in my writing class last week illustrates this: everyone sat with their eyes closed for two minutes and then wrote about the room we were sitting in. Every, single account was different, because it was written from that person's individual worldview. Were any of them wrong? No, of course not. Would each person be able to make an argument that their view was more "accurate" than that of the person sitting next to her? They could try, sure. But objectivity is not the aim of personal essay, memoir or creative nonfiction. We all filter the world through our own sensors, and can't expect anyone else's to match our own. That's the beauty of sentience: we all bring our own light to the world, and by shining it around, discover it and one another.
As a writer, I try to treat my characters with respect and sensitivity. Sometimes, I miss the mark. I'm human. We're all human. For that reason, no one is ever identified by first and last name in any of my essays. Anything that gets published any more widely than on my own blog (on "Big Salon" for example), gets run past the person or people involved before it goes anywhere. So will the galleys of this book when it gets to that point. I won't change the material, but I will bury the identities of my characters more deeply if necessary. I owe them that much. For legal reasons, I always ask for written confirmation that I can use images of other people.
At the end of the day, as a writer who draws material heavily from her own life, other people will appear in my work, in a variety of circumstances. I make every effort to ensure that my depictions of places, people and the situations they find themselves in are truthful, to the extent that my perspective is true to what I know of it. I try to write honestly, without consciously inflicting bias on my material. I do not publish pieces written in anger or infatuation. At the end of the day, I consider that the best that I can do.
But is that enough?
At a panel on point of view I attended during the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Chicago last weekend, someone asked the panelists whether they try to "write their characters likable." One in particular (whose name I confess, I don't remember) said roughly, "I love all of my characters like you love your family. You may not like them, and they may do things you don't like, but you love them anyway."
Sometimes, the facets of my characters that come through in a particular piece may not be their "game face." Would an ex-boyfriend write a break-up story the same way I would? Naturally, no. Would he love the way he came across? Maybe not. But that's the way I saw it. That's the way I lived it. So that's the way I wrote it.
Writers do not take the doctors' vow, "first, do no harm." As a journalist, I couldn't do my job if I made it a priority not to harm the reputation of, say, the child abuser who was arrested down the street a couple of months ago and finally convicted yesterday. I can make sure I structure my language so I don't try him in the press, but all I can do is write what I know of the circumstances and let the reader make their own judgments.
I approach my personal essays, memoir and creative nonfiction the same way. Perfect characters are boring and unrealistic. No one believes a story in which everyone behaves themselves. That's disingenuous. That's false, and sounds it. Reads it. Feels it.
This is my pledge to the characters, scenes and circumstances that appear in my writing: I will show you as I know you. I will not lie, about myself or the circumstances in which I find myself, to the best of my ability. I will love my characters onto the page, but I will not force the reader to like them.
And of my readers, I can only hope they will allow me to be human. That they will accept that I, like all bumbling beings encased in flesh and bone and cursed with a limited memory, a short sight and a capacity for failure, will sometimes fall short of my goal. I don't pretend to be perfect. I don't claim superiority because I write about my life and the outside forces implicit in it. Quite the contrary: I am constantly humbled by the alchemy of the word and the live grenade that writing often is. Words are powerful.
The balance of truth and kindness is a tenuous one. One I think we all, as bloggers, struggle with every time we put our fingers to the keys. It's not something I've figured out yet, but it's on my mind. I hope it's on yours, too.