Speaking of entanglements, when writing memoir, there’s always that issue of how to talk about your parents. Your ex-boyfriends. Your husband. Or your in-laws. Now your words don’t just affect you and your impersonal readers: family and friends could be hurt or offended. And so, what is a writer, especially a Christian writer, to do?
Two Views on Writing about Real People
When it comes to writing about real people, immediately two options spring to mind.
First, my beloved Professor L used to like quoting an eighteenth-century writer (and I can’t remember whom) as saying something like: People better not tick off writers because they never know what he or she might write later. In other words, writers can and should write whatever they want about whomever they want.
While somewhat humorous to me, this view also seems selfish and inhumane, not to mention utterly unchristian. Even though I may have joked about wielding ammunition in my pen, seriously, this troubles me. “Revenge is mine [not Lindsey’s], says the Lord.” Needless to say, I don’t find much help here.
The second option comes from writer and teacher Peter Brickleback and, although not perfect, seems much more humane. In a nutshell, P.B. says that certain truths and experiences belong to us as writers, and so we should write about them. Those people we’re writing about? They “can write their own” version of the story.
I know this sounds somewhat callous, and even smacks of the other writer I paraphrased. However, here are some caveats P.B. tacks on that begin to win me over (see The Portable MFA, pp. 128-30). In writing “happily” about your “unhappy family [or whoever],” P.B. says the following:
- “Do not write as if you are Mr. or Mrs. Perfect.” He’s saying be honest about your flaws, too; don’t write as if you are the only victim in the world (your “oppressor” might be a victim, too).
- “Strive for compassion and empathy” in order to “[treat] the subject fairly.”
- Writing about difficult, universal experiences “contributes to our mutual benefit, to a wider social, human good.”
- Avoiding certain characters or topics can leave a “black hole of an absence” in the story, resulting in a “warped” version. In other words, sometimes we need to address these hard subjects to complete our stories.
- Writing using pain and anger as fuel helps us face pain more honestly.
- Writing in spite of pain can result in healing for both writer and writee—as in the case of a daughter who wrote a less-than-flattering memoir about her mother. In the end, P.B. reports, the mother and daughter came to have more understanding and compassion for each other: “[T]hey’ve straightened out some things that have gotten twisted through being buried. Also, being part of an attempt to put words to things, they’ve come to appreciate a lot more about the past and each other.”
Now, P.B.’s comments could easily be refuted, especially by Christians who are striving to “do unto others as you’d have them do to you.” Still, I’ve decided that Christians need to be open-minded to consider underlying assumptions and motives behind what might seem to be questionable opinions. In this case, P.B.’s very humane assumption is that writing should not (entirely) be selfish; rather, it should ultimately function for the greater good.
For Christians I think this means writing should, first and foremost, give glory to God—which is to say it must benefit others. But I am also coming to understand that that does not preclude writing about fallen humanity, including ours or others’. What is the Bible but the story of fallen humanity, anyway? That said, a Christian who is going to write on said topic might consider a few more caveats.
Some Christian Caveats for Writing about Other People and/or Pain
[Note: this section is really for me—but you can look, too!]
If I am a born-again Christian writing about a painful past that involves other people, I must be especially careful in how I shape the story. Does it end in redemption? Is there resolution available for all at the cross (even though some may not choose to accept it)? Because if I believe the Bible (and I do), Christ is the solution for all problems: by His stripes, we are healed (see Isaiah 53).
And so, after the happy (or at least hopeful) conclusion is settled, the remaining question for Christian writers might still be how to treat the bad roots, especially as they relate to or involve others. For myself, I’ve decided I want to include only the parts of their stories absolutely necessary to the telling of mine, but I also want to include enough so as to avoid leaving a “gaping hole.” Meanwhile, what I include should never needlessly hurt others.
While it may take awhile to figure out all of the above, I’m heartened by the same advice I’ve both given and gotten in English classrooms: Sometimes you have to write the body and conclusion before you figure out the beginning. Such is my story right now; but one day I’m confident I’ll get down to those roots I’m searching for.
You can view the photo from this post here.