There’s a scene in one of the Anne of Green Gables sequels in which Anne Shirley reflects on her dream of becoming a novelist. Someone tells her that no matter what she writes, her neighbors, friends and acquaintances will assume it is about them. They will fear, or hope, that they have been fictionalized and made into characters in her book. I read this scene when I was a child, long before I was myself a novelist and memoirist. But I knew what I wanted to be one day. And because I tend to pay respectful attention to creative Canadians, fictional or not, I wondered if this warning to Anne would prove relevant to my own future.
Indeed, it has. Unsurprisingly, this phenomenon of projection occurs most often when I write nonfiction. Men — it is always men — reach out after they read a story to ask if Josh or Julio or Henry was a stand-in for them, and if my feelings for this character reflect my real-life feelings for these men. They are always wrong, but because centering themselves in someone else’s narrative is a daily habit for many folks — not just for guys, of course — the messages keep coming. I assume that when you feel entitled to everything, the essay of somebody that you used to know is included.
Most recently, a sentient barnacle that used to ride along on my lifeboat until I scraped it off texted me to say he was certain I’d been writing about him in a particular essay. I wasn’t, but I am now, CHARLES (his name is not Charles.) I did not respond, because in a quick cost/benefit analysis I assessed there would be no ROI for the two seconds it would take to type “No” and press send. I had already sloughed off the friendship. I don’t typically continue to engage with dead skin cells in my shower, either.
Most of my work, fictional or not, doesn’t involve criticizing other humans. I tend to like people, except when I don’t, but the minutiae of my annoyance with a particular individual is rarely interesting enough to merit inclusion in a book or essay. The exception, of course, is when a public figure — like, for example, a terribly corrupt president — does something absolutely execrable, at which point I may write about it and use the name freely. Though it may already be obvious, let me say here that my thoughts in this essay do not concern journalism or political opinion about public figures. This is all about memoir.
If I intend to write about someone in a favorable manner, I may ask permission to use her real name. This is because I want to celebrate how funny or insightful or good-looking or well-mannered she is. I want other people to know that such a neat person walks the earth, and by God, her name is Amanda Deibert Staggs! This is an actual great gal, married to another great gal, Cat Staggs. I did not ask their permission to give these compliments and I hope they do not sue me, because they’re car-sitting for me while I chicken-and-cat-sit for my friends on a farm.
In most cases, but especially when I don’t like people, I change details about them as I convert my memory into a character intended for the page or screen. I do this for a few reasons: first, out of respect for the rule of law and for my lack of desire to tangle with anyone’s lawyer; second, out of common courtesy, as most individuals (me included!) do not wish to read about their behavior through someone else’s lens; and third, because I don’t want to deal with further communication from an unkind person. Naming them would surely invite a response. And if I’m writing about their past behavior without their present-day permission, they’re probably not in my life anymore — and for good reason.
The fourth reason I obscure the identity of some people is this: I am not usually a jerk. I am a jerk some of the time but not all of the time or even most of the time, and I continually try to be less of a jerk. My current method includes therapy, meditation, prayer, studying good behavior, quitting booze, apologizing when I fuck up, and listening to others. The last one is the toughest but most useful.
Unless I have a very good reason, I don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, particularly if my interaction with them was an uncharacteristically low point in their otherwise decent existence. I cringe with embarrassment and remorse when I consider those whom I’m harmed through rude or thoughtless behavior, usually inadvertently, when I was depressed or frightened or simply having a shitty day. My actions in that instance may color someone’s entire perception of me.
The job of memoir is not the job of journalism. There is no pretense of “objective memoir.”
For example, it would be uniquely unfair of someone to write a wrathful essay entitled, “Sara Benincasa Is A Villainous Monster Forever Incapable Of Good Thought Or Kind Deed Because She Made Out With Some Other Guy When We Were Dating Junior Year In High School.” Yes, I did do that, but I was 17 then and I’m 37 now. And it would be stupid, short-sighted and immature of me to write something similar. So I’d hope that person would call me Delores Dunglehooper or Karen Shitstain and maybe change my hair color while they’re at it.
A writer’s depiction of any other human is by its very nature only a partial glimpse. Let’s say I see a man wearing a blue shirt in the weird Denver cult airport, and the guy is crying. I write, “I saw a man wearing a blue shirt in the demonically possessed Denver airport. He was crying.” The reader may like blue shirts; she may hate blue shirts; she may be neutral on blue shirts. The same may be true of men, or of crying, or of Denver or airports or demonic possession. But I’ve only given the reader part of the story.
Might she have a different opinion if I added that the man was also wearing a bright pink tutu and six-inch heels? What if he wore a blue shirt with red jeans? What if he wore no pants at all? What if, before I saw him crying, I heard the man call his thirteen-year-old daughter a cunt? What if she’s crying, too? What if she’s actually being an abusive monster, hitting her younger brother across the face, and my objection is simply to her father’s use of the gendered term “cunt” rather than something gender-neutral like “asshole,” which is a hole with which every person is born? Am I obligated to tell the reader? What is this story about, anyway?
The answer is that the story is about whatever the hell I want it to be about. The reader wasn’t there with me. She didn’t see any of this happen. I’m in the driver’s seat, and I choose where I take her. She believes I am telling her the truth, or at least she starts with that belief when she sees that my story is labeled “memoir” or “personal essay” or “personal narrative” or that I am called “memoirist” or “essayist” or “reporter” or “nonfiction writer.” The job of memoir is not the job of journalism. There is no pretense of “objective memoir.” There is probably “objectivist memoir,” which involves somebody blathering on to you about how Ayn Rand changed his life. I would rather watch my own ingrown toenail surgery in close-up. That unsavory experience would at least conclude with a satisfactory ending.
When authors make a three-dimensional living, breathing human being into a character in a 60,000 word memoir (or a 2,000 word essay), we must by necessity diminish them. Even if we come only to praise these people, we turn them into servants of our own artistic desires. We deploy them as we wish, and they must do our bidding. This does not sound like a fair arrangement, and it isn’t. People have often repeated to me some variation on the statement “Lie down with writers, get up with things written about you” but I do not believe this is always true, nor should anyone who interacts with me expect to be used as cannon fodder in the service of One Woman’s Journey™. The memoir industrial complex will do just fine without me adding my middle school bully’s actual surname to the mix.
And when you write something that reads more like an overblown diary entry about your stupid life drama than a thoughtful exploration of human existence, you sound like a simpering fool. I remember one woman who used her gig as an online editor to write endless tormented prose about a boyfriend who’d had the temerity to dump her after six months. I don’t mean an essay or two about heartbreak or rage or rejection. She regularly published what appeared to be the unedited contents of drunken longhand diary entries. At some point she began stalking his new girlfriend, and chronicling that, too. It was fairly horrifying. She gave his first name, the name of his employer, and even the name of the poor new girlfriend’s employer.
I don’t doubt that the guy hurt her feelings. I don’t doubt he was a shitty person. But having a case of the sads over a shit-for-brains ex does not grant one a license to commit character assassination. Grown-ups deal with rejection, sometimes keening and wailing in private pain. We don’t expect random readers to give a shit for a year. Look, I’ll read or listen to a good old-fashioned angry rant about anybody’s breakup for 15 minutes, but after that, you’ve got to make it compelling. And her work was not compelling. She was a decent writer, occasionally funny, and could’ve done better work.
I do not pretend to be a brilliant writer, or one who has not committed the sin of overindulgence in personal navel analysis in the public sphere. I came of age during a time when many of us freelance writer types eked out a living in an overpriced city by shitting out timely and ill-conceived responses to national news and trends. I have committed plenty of literary atrocities in my day, many of them during paid blogging hours, and I’d prefer not to throw another burning body on the pile along with some of the terrible garbage jokes I told once upon a time.
Interesting people make mistakes and talk about those mistakes. Interesting writers write about them.
The editor reinforced a belief that I try to impart to my students when I teach writing: Never write for revenge. It’s lazy. It’s tempting! But you will come off sounding like a lazy, shitty writer. In the times when I have given into temptation, I have avoided the use of anyone’s real name but I have still managed to come off lazy and shitty.
Not that anyone wants a teller of true tales to be an angel. Angelic humans are adorable and comforting and inspiring and sweet, but they are not interesting. Interesting people make mistakes and talk about those mistakes. Interesting writers write about them.
David Sedaris is no angel. Joan Didion is no angel. Roxane Gay is no angel. Molly Ivins was no angel. These are all storytellers for whom I have great admiration, and not a single one of them pretends to be perfect. Every single one, however, is very interesting.
Anne Lamott, whom I also admire, famously wrote, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.” I take her point. And I agree, but I have some caveats.
If I sit down to read your story and you’ve made your character come off as a perfect creature brutalized by villainous evildoers who are just jealous of your unceasing fabulousness, I’ll call bullshit. Your ego wrote a story, and egos tend to write very dull prose. If you depict your character as a good but flawed individual who has been hurt or abused by terrible people, I’m vastly more likely to stay on the ride.
Write what happened, but keep a few details for yourself. And remember that as soon as you write a story in which you are a player, you become a character, too. Your character becomes as much an object for scrutiny as the others in your story. Once it’s out in the world, people will love “you” or hate “you” or find “you” obnoxious or annoying or sexy or a zillion other things. At that point, you have no more control over the story. It’s theirs now. So while it’s still yours, take good care of it — and of you, the real you, the one sitting and reading this right now.