Once I was telling a fellow writing friend about an essay I was writing, about a man that assaulted me in college. I was talking about how I wanted to explore our teenage years together, our friendship, masculinity, what caused him to act that way, and the friend interrupted me.
‘You do that a lot,’ he said.
‘Do what?’ I asked.
‘Make excuses for people.’
I had never thought of it that way. Was I making excuses for them? Or trying to offer my readers a fully fleshed out person, one with both beauty and terror within them the way so many people are? Maybe both?
When people begin their foray into nonfiction, I feel like the first line of questioning is almost always something like this: Could someone sue me? Should I use their real name? How much do I have to reveal about them? What about dialogue – can I make up a conversation? What about someone who is dead? What about someone who is alive?
Because we live in a world of people, naturally our creative nonfiction must have people too. Sometimes as background fodder, mentions that remind the reader ‘Hey! Other humans are here! I don’t live in an isolated world!’ but our lives are naturally entangled with others, and so naturally, their lives are part of the core fabric of our stories. So then, the core of these questions is revealed: ‘How do I write about other people?’ Very specifically, I have been thinking about how we write about those we consider bad people, or at least people who have wronged us.
I would love to say that I have an answer, but this piece is as investigative for me as it is anything else. In her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, writer Anne Lamott offers this on the subject: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
I am interested in this concept, possibly because I ascribe to it less than I would maybe like to. In many ways, writing nonfiction is a way to feel in control of a narrative, to claim agency over your own life, and that’s empowering—especially for those that are often disenfranchised by society for whatever reason. So yes, it’s true – you own your experience. Should you have to make excuses to those that wronged you? I don’t think so. Do you owe it to them by virtue of writing about them? Why must you have to give to those that have taken from you?
Mary Karr has a different opinion. In her book, The Art of Memoir, she tells of the story Anne Fadiman wrote once. To paraphrase, it goes something like this: A sailor is gone for months and months, and eventually comes home to his staving family on Christmas Day, carrying a bushel of oranges. He goes to his room, locks the door, and eat all the oranges. The children cry. Everything is ruined because he’s terrible, right? Of course, the twist is that he has scurvy. So, Mary Karr writes, ‘metaphorically speaking, I always make room for evidence of scurvy in my characters.’
Good people are easy, of course. Bad people in our life, those that hurt us—or even worse, complicated people, the relationships that are layered and difficult and take serious work—how do we carry them? What is the allowance of empathy that we must offer? If someone was horrendous and abusive to us, do we have to go back and search for the reasons why they’re terrible, hunt down the scurvy? What is our responsibility to those we write about – who, as terrible as they are, are unequivocally part of the work, who without it the story may not exist? Must we empathize with bad people in order to gain the trust of a reader? Why does a reader look for reasons not to trust?
Karr is right, of course. Finding the scurvy often makes for a more interesting book. I recently finished Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, which focuses on her incredibly angry, vaguely abusive, by all accounts pretty not-great father and possibly person, who is all the more interesting – and therefore, the story is interesting—because of his scurvy. And we want our stories to be interesting, right? That’s why we tell them.
Bechdel wrote about working on the memoir, stating that writing about family is an inherently hostile act. You violate their subjectivity. I would argue writing about most people you don’t feel absolute glowing affection for is inherently hostile, for the mere act that you are reducing a six-dimensional human into a character in some way. And as we all know, glowing affection doesn’t often make for an interesting story.
I want to be clear, in that I’m not a particularly angry person. I’m relatively easy to annoy, but very slow to anger, and I don’t think my writing is particularly passionate in that way. But I am fascinated by those who are, who hold it and offer it up to the world without shame. So often they have a right to be angry. Who can blame them?
In fact, I very rarely write about other people at all, and when I do, I try to keep mentions vague and brief, for the mere fact that I, like so many others, am scared. I think back to that essay, about the man who assaulted me. What stopped me from giving his name? What stopped me from publishing the essay, sharing it with the world? We still have mutual friends for one, and there is a fear of the loss of those friendships. The fact that as a woman, I am less likely to be believed if he argues that I’m lying. And with that, the idea that has been drilled into my head that he shouldn’t have his life ruined over one mistake. I know, logically, it wouldn’t ruin his life. And if it did, it’s not my fault. He committed the act. I merely told the story.
‘Shooting the messenger’ is a phrase that comes from war, the idea that commanding officers were expected to receive and return emissaries of diplomatic envoys. Sophocles writes this in Antigone, stating, ‘no one loves the messenger who brings bad news.’ No one loves a friend who reveals another friend is a sexual predator. But then, is it my duty to tell the story? And if so, how much? I am still hurt by his actions; why does it fall to me to make him a sympathetic character? But this is also a man who grew up in a house filled with unrest and only men – does that not contribute to the build-up of his actions, why he felt like this was something he could do?
I often write about my parents. Exploring them is a way to explore myself. I come from a small town; I have a big family. What do I owe my parents in terms of privacy? We live in the age of the internet and I don’t use a pseudonym — even if I did change their names, it is so easy to find out, so easy to discover it’s them. But I can’t not write about them, because these are my stories too.
So how do we carry someone; what, as messengers, are we expected to offer? What is our responsibility? I don’t know. But I believe that it is our duty as writers to take it seriously, to offer space for a human to be human and for our own emotions to exist even when it is messy and ugly. Many things in life are, and that’s what nonfiction is, right?
An Epoch contributor, Kristen Reneau is a guest author for the blog and provides a critical reflection on creative non-fiction writing. Reneau is working on her MFA in creative nonfiction at the University of New Orleans. Her work has also been accepted into The Threepenny Review, Hobart, Hippocampus Magazine, etc.