What We Should and Shouldn’t Write

Today there’s a new blog post up on The Missouri Review‘s site by my friend Maura Lammers. In it she talks very honestly and human-ly about the struggles she faces as a teacher in an alternative high school and as a person who usually processes her life through writing. The question she reaches is, can I write about my students, can I fictionalize and use little bits of their lives to make a new story, my story? And she answers, not in good conscience, no. I shouldn’t, and won’t.

This question about what stories writers can and should tell and which we should leave be because they aren’t ours to tell is something that I too wonder about, have wondered about for a while. So far I’ve drawn my own line in the sand at protecting the people I write about – if there’s some information that is deeply personal and private then I don’t want to be the one to expose that, especially not without permission. This last fall I was working on a piece about my sisters and some of the struggles they’ve faced that I don’t necessarily have any experience with, and then it hit me. These aren’t my stories, aren’t my experiences, and I’m going to need to be as honest and as sensitive as possible while writing this, am going to have to resist that part of me that wants to moralize and simplify and interpret, and I’m going to need to let my sisters read and edit and censor this before I send it out to anyone else. My relationships are more important to me than any particular essay is, and that’s just that. I’m still writing this particular piece because, frankly, I think it’s important, but I’m working slowly and am double-checking myself at every turn to make sure that I’m writing what I need to and only that, and that I’m being as sensitive and thoughtful as I possibly can be when writing stories that aren’t mine. It’s a constant anxiety, and very precarious balance, and one I’m sure I haven’t gotten quite right yet.

In general, however, I feel free to take moments and stories that I’ve heard about and weave them into a larger piece on the logic that all of our stories are combining into one larger masterpiece anyway. I’ve written about episodes that involve my family or boyfriend, that expose aspects of their lives, when I’ve felt that those moments are fully part of my life and fall within my experience and my story. For example, I once wrote about the night my boyfriend told me his parents were getting a divorce, because that moment was deeply resonant and important to me. But I certainly didn’t write that passage from his perspective, or claim in any way that I knew or could represent what that moment meant to him, how it hurt. I know it did, but I don’t know exactly how, and so I didn’t write it.

And that’s about the point where Maura’s blog made sense to me, where it really taught me something. I used to think that this was an issue that only essayists really had to struggle with, that fiction writers were somehow immune. Oh, fiction writers, I would scoff. They can just write whatever they want and then say they made it up. We essayists have stricter standards. We have the truth to write, people, and I for one don’t take it lightly. But Maura broke through that, explaining that writing about her students, or at least writing about them in the way that she was, was “wrong, because my students are living, breathing, multifaceted, and vulnerable human beings; on the page, I inexpertly reduced them down to whatever they were currently struggling with and tried to spin it off into its own plot device, and develop a character around it.” She wasn’t being honest to those living human beings and experiences, was using them to create a new story, and there was something off about that. I guess my point is, she’s wrestling with what’s true and what’s not too, is feeling the pressure to be honest and real, to represent lives as honestly as possible. And it’s hard, but worth doing, and if that sometimes means taking a big step back and reevaluating whether we can or should tell certain stories, than so be it. And man, I can definitely relate to that sinking realization that I am using someone’s experience for my own purposes, to make a good and interesting story, not to learn more about them and the world and life we share.

So, to conclude this clumsy post, I will say this – Maura’s raising some important questions, questions I’m still working to answer. This struggle to negotiate the morality of writing, what we can and can’t write about, what we should feel free to tackle and what’s out of bounds, is complicated and it is hard. But these are questions all writers should wrestle with for the good of our writing but also for the good of ourselves as human beings. This isn’t to say that there’s a right and a wrong answer – I have a feeling that we’ll all draw our lines in the sand at different points. As long as we draw them thoughtfully, and with a lot of care given to how those lines will affect the people around us, we’ll be okay.

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