Do You Have the Right to Write About Her?

I’ve committed myself to posting one entry a week on memoir and one on writing about others for the next two months.  Although I’ll be reading books about both subjects during that time, my plan is to concentrate on my own thoughts.  I want to see what I can puzzle out.  What questions come.  I’m hoping to find intersections and exclusions: thoughts about one that are applicable to the other, and thoughts that aren’t.

My first entry each week, appearing on Monday (I hope), will be about memoir, and I’ve already made that entry this week.  So here I’ll concentrate on writing about others.  I want to start with something memoir-related, however: writing about family.  This is the place where memoir and writing about others most often intersect.  Virtually every memoir about childhood paints a picture of one or more parents in some way, and many paint profiles of siblings too.

In my classes on personal writing, I always tell my students, “Be careful about bringing parents into your writing.  They have a tendency to take over.”  This warning comes from experience–from seeing a brief mention of a father in a personal essay, for example, prompt a class full of readers and would-be critics to beg or even demand to learn more.  Maybe we’re all just Freudian after all, believing that childhood experiences and relationships determine who we become.  It seems more likely, though, that writing about parents is simply more highly charged than writing about anyone else.  And once a reader feels that emotional charge, she hungers for more.

Most books that deal with writing about others focus primarily on biographies of people already dead.  They talk about going to archives and interviewing survivors.  They discuss the need to interpret a writer’s thoughts based on her works or a politician’s values based on his actions.  They recommend researching and recreating the times in which your subject lived.  And some, if they’re good ones, talk about how to bring your subject to life on the page.  What they don’t discuss is how to think and write about someone with whom you’ve had an actual encounter.

The thing is, it’s easy to form opinions and settle on themes when you’re writing about someone you’ve had no relation to.  You can treat that person as history, a collection of facts and writings and relationships with other dead people. But what if you’ve seen a person alive? What if you’ve witnessed his or her actions and words over time?  What if that person had a great influence on your own life, for better or ill?  How do you separate your own strong feelings from what someone else might call “the facts”?  In the case of a parent, how do you distinguish your own development from the independent changes that person might have been going through at the same time?

I struggled with most of these questions while writing my biography Pure Act, in which I was writing about a man I loved who taught me much.  They loom even larger as I embark on a memoir in which my mother’s life and death play a significant role.  To some degree, they are questions of fairness, and they aren’t asked often enough about memoir or about writing about others, whether that writing be profiles or even biographies of the dead.

As I write these entries over the next two months, I expect this question of giving others a voice in the telling of their own stories to regularly pop up, along with an even larger question: In this age when every form of supposed appropriation is suspect, do we have the right to tell another person’s story at all?