A Brief Reflection on the Responsibility of Writing About Other People

July 9, 2012

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Most people would hesitate to call themselves memoirists (I, for one, prefer to call myself “someone who writes and tends to stick with that ‘write what you know’ philosophy”), but I would say most of us ARE storytellers (or gossips or blowhards or stand-up comics), and it’s always good to reflect on the responsibilities we have to the people in our stories. I do believe in Joan Didion’s warning that “writers are always selling somebody out,” but I think there’s more to it than that. Today I read an interview with Cheryl Strayed in which she concisely elaborates on the topic.

If you haven’t heard about Cheryl Strayed, you will soon enough, in part because a main reason Oprah restarted her bookclub was to laud Strayed’s new memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail, a book fully worthy of that honor and more.

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I became enamored of Strayed in her role as the anonymous advice giver in The Rumpus column, Dear Sugar, an advice column like none you’ve read before. Sugar tackles messy and complicated issues in a way that’s firm and generous, and in a way that leaves readers with a great measure of hope, in large part because Strayed admits that her life also has been messy and complicated and ugly, but is now more likely to be redemptive and productive and even, at times, blissful. She admits her failures and her successes, and she does so without being saccharine (perhaps the reason she’s called Sugar—there’s nothing artificial about her).

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In the interview, Strayed discusses the reflective and ethical process of writing and editing a memoir, continually questioning what and who she writes about, and addressing the responsibilities a writer has to her subject. This doesn’t mean Strayed censors herself or shies away from challenging topics—her Sugar column proves that over and over again, as do her revelations in Wild—but I take her words to heart as I think all storytellers (and gossips and memoirists and stand-up comics) should:

“We need to write about other people in our lives. What I always say is, you just have to do that, and then do your best to take out what isn’t necessary. Through every draft of Wild as I read it, I would take out a teeny bit more. Each time I went through, I would take out a little more about the people I wrote about, because it had to meet two tests. 1) Did the piece of information that I was revealing about this other person contribute to the story? And 2) was it necessary. Like, did you have to know that so and so was addicted to cocaine? If the answer is no, it doesn’t need to be in there. And also, are there consequences? If I do determine something is necessary, what are the consequences of including that – for me and also for that person? If you’re writing about somebody and saying that they are a cocaine addict, it actually might have negative consequences in their lives. To what degree are you willing to take their life into your hands in that regard? Those are questions I was asking a lot when I wrote about other people in Wild. And you know, I didn’t necessarily find a perfect path through it. But I think I found a pretty solid one. Nobody who’s in the book has written to me to complain about what I wrote about them.”

Thank you Cheryl, for saying it better than I ever could. And at the risk of making this blog look completely like an endorsement for The Rumpus, I will leave you with one more link, not for Cheryl, but for a writer just as wonderful and generous and careful with her words, Kelly Grey Carlisle.

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