Writing about loved ones is touchy, to say the very least. I’ve discussed this dilemma with many writer-friends, have read sections of craft books and whole interviews dedicated to the topic, and the same questions always seem to pop up: Who am I allowed to write about? Is this story mine to tell? What if someone with whom I shared this experience disagrees with my interpretation? Is the possible damage to my relationship(s) worth the risk? In response to these questions, there doesn’t seem to be any general consensus, and every writer has a different set of past circumstances and complex relationships and specific fears that color their individual answers. What do I think? Well, here’s a story.
When I was a sophomore in college I took a lower-level critical theory class the professor dedicated to dirty realism and coming-of-age memoir, which meant Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, and a slew of stories and poems by writers like Dorothy Allison and Sharon Olds. I was angsty and inspired and didn’t have many tools yet in my writer’s belt, and I was assigned to write a childhood memoir piece. I went all out, explicitly detailing aspects of my parents’ relationship and sex life, the perceived failings of my mother and the multitude of ways I felt she irreversibly fucked me up. I wrote about how I pitied my mother and the life she chose; I was cruel and petty and, worst of all, devoid of perspective. I was living at home at the time, and my mom found the essay on my floor, reading it in its entirety. (We are both fatally curious and willfully self-destructive people.) I remember getting the phone call from her after she’d read it, stepping out of the coffee shop where I was studying to talk to her. I don’t recall all the specifics, but I remember vividly her saying she wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to trust me again, which was huge since we had been each other’s biggest confidants as I grew up. Our relationship was admittedly strained at the time (because I was a selfish, narrow-minded punk of a 19-year-old), but still, it hurt; my mom always has been, and I suspect always will be, my best friend. When she hurts, I hurt too because she’s part of me, or, rather, I’m literally a part of her. She asked me not to submit the piece, but I submitted it anyway.
As much as I can look back and see what a little shit I was at the time—not necessarily in regards to what I wrote, but the biased, self-righteous way in which I wrote it—I don’t regret a bit of it. That experience was foundational in my development as a writer, a lesson I couldn’t have learned any other way. I established then what my answers are to the questions I mentioned before: Who am I allowed to write about? Anyone at all. Is this story mine to tell? Yes. If it has somehow impacted me, I can tell it. What if someone with whom I shared this experience disagrees with my interpretation? I am beholden to my own truth and no one else’s. Is the possible damage to my relationship(s) worth the risk? Yes, it is.
That last question is the tricky one. I’ve known talented writers who have buried beautiful pieces because even broaching the idea sent someone they love into a tizzy. Maybe my answer seems cruel and cold and far too cut-and-dry, but I can’t help but take a queue from this Hunter S. Thompson quote:
“We are all alone, born alone, die alone, and—in spite of True Romance magazines—we shall all someday look back on our lives and see that, in spite of our company, we were alone the whole way. I do not say lonely—at least, not all the time—but essentially, and finally, alone. This is what makes your self-respect so important, and I don’t see how you can respect yourself if you must look in the hearts and minds of others for your happiness.”
I think about death often (another blog post in itself), particularly now that I don’t subscribe to the Christian faith and eternity is no longer something I take for granted. I like this quote because it reminds me that no matter the relationships I cultivate in this life, at the end the only thing that matters is whether or not I respected myself, that I made use of my time and my abilities. I don’t want to live for someone else’s happiness, and I don’t want anyone else to live for mine—not my father or mother or lover or friend. Which means, if I feel someone else’s love or trust or respect is on the line because I’m being true to myself, then those are things I’m willing to sacrifice because my love and trust and respect for myself is simply more important than theirs.
The situation with my mother has a happy ending. She’s unfailingly supportive of the path I’ve chosen, and our relationship is stronger than ever. We’ve talked about our fallout over my essay a lot the past few years, and she understands I’m going to write about her; I have to. It doesn’t mean she’s always going to like it, that I’m not going to hurt her again, but she’s chosen to offer her love and support unconditionally, which is something I am incredibly grateful for because it could’ve gone either way and not everyone is so lucky. But I think she’s comforted, as am I, by what I’ve learned about writing over the last six years, that it’s all about perspective and empathy and growth. It’s easy to pander and exaggerate and play the martyr; telling the truth takes a hell of a lot more work.