Why did you have to write about that moment?
A friend of mine wrote and published online a moving essay about her sister’s death, and this is the response she got from a family member. My friend did some soul-searching afterwards, trying to find an answer. She reported the question to me the other day and in my usual compassionate way, I said, “That’s a stupid damned question.” She had to write about that moment because that’s what writers do. They write about moments like that and illuminate something of our shared humanity when they do it.
But I didn’t think it was a stupid damned question because the answer is self evident. It wasn’t, in fact, a question at all. It was a criticism and a judgment. You shouldn’t have written about that is really what this person was saying. So, if that’s the point this person wants to make, then that’s what this person should say to my friend. Kiss my ass is the response I coached her to practice.
Of course, whenever we write about other people, we have to wrestle with the question of whether it’s fair and how they’ll feel about it, but a beautiful tribute to a dead sister isn’t exactly bitter libel.
When I write about my personal life, I usually write about my writing or about my daughter. When I write about my daughter, I sometimes describe her challenges. I try to do it as honestly as possible, but my purpose isn’t to talk about her differences, it’s to emphasize how she teaches me to be a better person through our relationship. If I end up having to criticize someone else to make a point, I do it without naming the people involved and without giving the kind of identifying information that would make them immediately recognizable. This is because I know I’m only presenting my side of the story and these other people won’t get a chance to tell their side.
There are whole categories of experiences I don’t write about because I can’t figure out how to do it fairly, and fairness matters to me. On the other hand, I occasionally make off-hand comments about my ex-husband that do not always cast him in the most flattering light (hey, he’s an ex for a reason). I wouldn’t even have been aware of this tendency except that the other day he mentioned that he’d read an essay I posted on my blog. He quoted the offending passage at me with the lift of his brow, and I said, “Uh, it would probably be a good thing for our relationship if you stopped reading my blog.”
Fortunately, he doesn’t get all twisted out of shape over these things (he’s had plenty of time to get used to me), but it reminded me of the power we have when we tell our stories. We have to use that power wisely, and not gratuitously, but we also can’t keep quiet just because we might hurt someone’s feelings.
What are your rules of thumb for writing about your personal experience?