What if the one thing that kept you from being a great writer was that you would have to tell the truth to the world?
This is the first in a series of online conversations between myself and interesting people taking place on Friday nights.
Tonight I spoke with Raquel, a writer/editor who is finishing her MA in Publishing, and Brooke, who is finishing her PhD in Visual Anthropology at Temple University. Her forthcoming essay “Grief: Reflections on Ethnography” will be published by Encyclopedia II.
As you may know, I am a writer with an MA in English, concentration in Literary Theory. My list of pubs can be found on my Write page.
I hope you will find some use of our conversation and if you have any thoughts to add, please comment.
Friday, May 9, 2008
9:17 PM me: okay, so can i explain why i have summoned you both here?
i’ll be brief
Raquel: um because we’re cool?
me: cute and cool
Brooke: bc you wanted to ruin our fri nights?
Raquel: teehee hee
Brooke: bc you liiiiiiike us?
me: oh give it up, you didn’t have an awesome friday night planned anyway
9:18 PM Brooke: uts true
i heart you both
9:19 PM i don’t want to ruin the silly mood. but, i will.
i once was an ENGLISH TEACHER. It’s in my blood.
Raquel: and probably caused you to want to draw blood from your nimrod students
9:20 PM me: ok, i am having a crisis, so you can think of this a summons to counsel
9:23 PM me: Okay, good. So, I could sum it all up like this: What if the one thing that kept you from being a great writer was that you would have to tell the truth to the world?
I am starting to despair that I will never be the writer I always wanted to be. And I am starting to think it’s because the material that I should be using, I am afraid to use.
Raquel: well i feel like many things keep me from being a great writer, so if that’s all that was in my way, i’d try to figure things out!
9:24 PM but, in all seriousness, i can understand where you are coming from. sometimes writing what you know can be terribly scary
me: haha, raquel. always with the quick wit
Brooke: overcome your fear, nina
thats prob an indication that your material is good
Raquel: the riskiest material is always the juiciest
9:25 PM but god, it can be scary to take that risk can’t it?
Brooke: fuck yes
9:26 PM me: i think that my problem is not baring my own soul, but baring the impressions i have of the world around me. family and friends. writing about my neighborhoods, my parents and siblings. i mean, how do writers do it?
Raquel: i haven’t been able to do it, in various aspects of my life, for a long time
me: risking these relationships like that?
Raquel: they have to be brave enough to not care if they end up alone perhaps?
9:27 PM Brooke: i think the key is to write with compassion
me: both good points
compassion and detachment. very buddhist
9:28 PM Raquel: hahaha wow…. who knew?
well nina you know that quote i have on my blog about how when a writer is born a family dies
Brooke: actually i would not sacrifice my personal relationships
9:29 PM Raquel: i don’t know what i would do because i haven’t written about my family in 6 years
me: i love that quote
9:30 PM see, it’s a complicated thing. no easy answers. that’s why i called you here from across the high plains
Raquel: it is complicated
9:31 PM my cousin is actually writing a memoir about our family now, and the “elders” in the family can’t understand why she would go and write about our business
me: i think what scares me is that writing with compassion, you can still make a person feel uncomfortable. i think writers sacrifice always everyone around them.
Raquel: she thinks it is an important story to tell to the world
9:32 PM me: you have elders? i love it. i don’t really have a tribe like that.
Brooke: in anthropology, we actually have a very strict, codified set of ethics for research, and by extension, writing ethnography
me: but i have a close nuclear family
Brooke: so i sort of envy writers who can forget what their subjects want
9:33 PM me: and we are all easily hurt by each other
want to give us a specific example of something youre thinking about writing about?
so maybe we can be more helpful?
me: Brooke, that was very interesting: tell us more
Raquel: yeah i feel vague and muddled right now, but that’s probably because i chugged a gin and tonic earlier tonight!
me: about the ethics of antro
Raquel: yeah that sounds really cool actually
9:35 PM Brooke: we are supposed to have our subjects review our work before we publish
i mean, ideally
of course, in my thesis, there were various people who wanted themselves portrayed in diff ways
9:36 PM and i only felt a loyalty to my main informants who were teenage girls, as opposed to the village leaders who were trying to restrict what i wrote about them
9:37 PM i would not publish something if one of my informants was uncomfortable with it
i might find a way to muddle her identity
me: what was your thesis about?
Brooke: but she would have to say it was ok
gender and secondary schooling
Brooke: but in practice, its not like i force them to edit my article drafts
9:38 PM i just keep in mind what i know about them
and dont say anything offensive
me: see, that would make for terrible art
9:39 PM Raquel: it’s interesting that you allow them to review what you write, because in the ethics course i took here (mostly focused on magazinesweb/news sources) we struggled with whether we’d ever allow a source to view an article before it went to print
Brooke: well i say many offensive things about their teachers
Raquel: and we came to the conclusion that we would not want to let our sources view our work generally
9:40 PM me: yes, that’s interesting, how in journalism your subject should not have any control over what is said
Brooke: i mean, youhave to look at the history of the disciplines. for us, we are trying to make up for decades of colonialism
9:44 PM me: absolutely. the major dialogue in the field of lit. theory, when i was in school in the early 2000s was the question of whose voice is spoke, or whose gaze is given dominance
writing the ‘other’ and what not. my masters thesis focused on these questions
9:45 PM i always found it interesting, especially regarding how much people in the west want to write about nonwestern people and how much we muck it up.
9:46 PM but there must be one ethos, i believe, over all, regarding the correct way to approach writing aboutthe world.
Raquel: well i guess people’s approaches to their writing vary by person
9:47 PM i mean, why was augusten bouroughs willing to write all that insane shit about his therapist’s family, much of which they claim was either untrue or family secrets?
I don’t mind art that interprets the world through strange lenses, as long as there is a wink somewhere.
Brooke: but i think thats burroughs still wrote in an affectionate way
9:49 PM Raquel: i can’t say, i didn’t read any of his books. i just read about his case and the lawsuit he was embroiled in with the family
Brooke: oh then maybe they didnt think so!
9:50 PM Raquel: i think a lot of problems come in because all of us have our own notion of the “truth” or “Truth” of a story
9:51 PM me: I think that what is important to this matter is that those people who are sincere, who have stories to tell and are artists, not just slanderers or sensationalists, have to ultiately make a choice between being good children and good friends and their honest feelings and thoughts.
Raquel: we see ourselves written about and are like, that is not so
and i think people who do choose to write about family and friends and reveal things need to reflect on it and ask themselves why they’re revealing this stuff….
9:52 PM is it just for the sensationalism? or does the story have some genuine worth to others? or are they in need of exorcising inner demons?
me: Right, no one likes to be written about, even if it i flattering. So, would you say that the writer has to resign themselves to potentially upsetting people?
Raquel: mary karr wrote about her crazy family in a highly compassionate, yet honest, way
me: what is teh book called?
Brooke: and she played with the notion of truth, right?
it was explicit
9:53 PM Raquel: i don’t know…. i think in the intro she discussed how she interviewed her mother and sister to check on things
and her sister was like, oh you definitely cried a lot more than you said you did in this story, or something
i read it a few months ago, it’s a little hazy.
9:54 PM Brooke: oh ok i read it yrs ago so never mind
me: i never read it, but maybe i’ll check it out.
9:55 PM Okay, well then, let me ask you Raquelita, about your novel.
9:56 PM Can you tell us what it was about?
9:57 PM Raquel: well it was about a cuban american girl who had a weird relationship with her mother because she was always trying to find out about her mother’s past in cuba
the mother was reticent
the girl felt like she was missing out on a big chunk of her identity
9:58 PM i based a lot of the characters and family dynamic on my own family
and as i started developing the plot, i started to feel this deja vous
and i was like crap
because i realized i was somewhat writing about my older cousin’s experience (the one with the memoir)
9:59 PM she is writing about how she met her half-sister in cuba for the first time when she was 23
so i felt like i had appropriated a story that wasn’t really mine to tell
it just got too hard… i would sit there and try to write and it was like this truth staring me in the face: you are stealing too much from life
10:00 PM me: stealing too much from life?
10:01 PM Raquel: like…. i took my cousin’s story
my characters were too much like my relatives
Brooke: but was your concern that you and her were writing the same book or that you were writing about her life?
Raquel: and i just felt like i couldn’t do it anymore
it was both
10:02 PM me: but why couldn’t you write about your own life?
Raquel: because my life is boring
and the stories aren’t identical
but it the same theme of finding lost family back in cuba
i did it without being conscious of doing so
10:03 PM me: AHA. There’s the rub. Okay, this is the problem of thinking that I am talking about.
10:06 PM Raquel’s life isnt boring. And as a writer, even the most banal daily existence is rich with internal life, so stories could weave in and out of reality, patch together whatever it is your imagination can glean. But writers get locked down because they don’t know how to ride that line between real life and fantasy. And I think this is my problem, too, because my life isn’t exactly action-packed either, but i have had many rich internal experiences that arose out of a rather normal life on the surface.
But I dichotomize the two and lose out on the best of each.
10:07 PM Raquel: i think for me i just lost the feeling of authority to tell the story
even though it was a fictional story
10:08 PM me: I think I am afraid to show the world how hurt I have been by the daily trails of my life. But that is where my truth has been and as long as I skirt it, i will not be writing my best work
10:09 PM Raquel: i don’t want to step on my cousin’s toes…. because let’s face it, even though i shouldn’t let it be this way, i still give more respect to the true to life story than my made up for-fun story
me: but what is all this bs about having authority to tell a story? did shakespeare have authority to patch together myth and other people’s work and make brilliant plays? this pomo pc bullshit is killing the imagination and the life of writers.
Raquel: i’m the first to agree with that
10:10 PM maybe it’s just an excuse, but it’s one i’ve found very convenient
Brooke: but nina why are you skirting it?
10:12 PM me: i love this article by Jeanette Winterson about Gertrude Stein and how upset Matisse and others were about their portrayal in her book. Winterson was like, these guys were getting lambasted by the public for paiting reality in ways that didn’t look real and then when Stein wrote reality in ways that changed it, they couldn’t stand it. I do think people expect a level of ‘recorded truth’ to stories and prize, especially these days, reality over fantasy.
10:13 PM To answer brooke’s question, i am afraid that if i told the truth about my childhood and high school years that my mother would look like a monster, my father like a ghost, and my friends would realize how little I liked them
not to mention my siblings
Brooke: is that how you want to portray them?
10:14 PM me: i would rather paint a more complete picture, but even with more dimensionality, there would be much said that i couldn’t take back.
10:16 PM Raquel: hmm
10:17 PM me: But there is so much here…where my philosophy and sensibility comes from…from growing up in mediocrity…I still havea lot of resentment and maybe writing it would just serve as catharsis, nothing more. But, I don’t know. I have real problems with the general sensibility of middle class white america and i am afraid that if i let myself go, i’d just skewer everyone except the very best of people (like you two 🙂
i think i am coming to terms, just these last months, with how i am not, at heart, a nice person, like i always thought i was.
and how maybe this is what i have to explore in order to grow as a writer.
10:18 PM Raquel: yeah i’m sort of a bitch 🙂
Brooke: nina i would say start writing and see where it goes
no use speculating beforehand
Raquel: nina it’s easy to hate people because so many of them are so stupid
10:19 PM have you already written something about your friends and fam?
me: well, i have written about the past and it turns into essay, not fiction. see, that is where i am stuck, trying to turn it into fiction. I wrote a short story about boys that kill each other in the woods and I used my memories of how I felt in high school for that one.
and it turned out pretty good, so yeah, maybe that’s the way to go.
10:20 PM It’s called AC/DC.
Raquel: i remember that story
i enjoyed it
it was creepy and very good
me: good !
Brooke: send it to me!
10:21 PM me: okay, well, then, i will try my hand at some fiction that calls forth those years and see what happens.
i’ll send right now.
10:22 PM Okay, I feel like that’s a good place to stop unless you want to continue on in different areas. It’s been an hour and a half. Didn’t mean to keep you so long.
0:23 PM Brooke: i hope this was somewhat useful to you
i apologize for being tired
and not contributing much
10:24 PM Raquel: yeah i don’t know if i said anything particularly useful
i’m not much of a writer these days
10:25 PM me: If you go to http://www.darkreveries.com/ and go to the archives for February 2007, two of my stories are published there, including AC/DC
You were both incredible.
I think there is a lot of food for thought here.
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