Jan 17

Bored With Death

The litmag editor opens her mail. She's eager to see today's nonfiction submissions:

1. The family is at Grandma's hospital bedside. A wonderful lady when she was well, now she can't speak and looks awful. The machines are beeping. Then Grandma is dead. Everyone feels terrible.

2. The pet is the best friend and companion anyone could have, a fount of unconditional love and loyalty, just like a person, and did many cute or amazing things, but then he gets sick and dies and leaves the owner only terrible emptiness.

3. The longtime friend gets breast cancer or ALS or has a stroke and bravely fights it and dies.

4. The husband, in his 70s or 80s, dies. What a good man he was, taken before his time.

5. The wastrel uncle or brother, a smoker and drinker who was never there for the narrator, is dying. It's terrible, but the narrator thinks it's important to sit with him through his last days and coma and forgive him.

Say. . . It's possible to write a good family essay or memoir that's not about somebody's death. Professor John N. Morris advised me, about poetry (but I use it for everything), "When given a choice between writing about life and death, choose life. It's much more interesting."

Alternatives:

1. Write about Grandma's most wonderful talent.
2. Write about why you became so emotionally attached to and dependent on an animal.
3. Write about the friendship in the days long before the friend got sick.
4. Write about the husband, keep the work in a file, and wait until you read about a call for an anthology about widowhood or bereavement.
5. Write about what the brother or uncle did in life. His waywardness will make better reading than the self-conscious narrator's inner struggle at his bedside.

Consider, in honor of those you've lost: Would you prefer that your author relative write about your death -- or write about what you did and accomplished while you were living?

Jun 13

When Writers Are Describing YOU.

Teacher evaluations are hard to open and read because they are unanswerable. I can't say, "But--" or "If--"; it's over. There's no correcting, even of the praise ("What you liked a lot wasn't the main thing I was trying to teach you!"). Evaluations go into a semi-permanent file. A student evaluation somewhere says about me, "She wears cheap jewelry."

Even worse, some writer's creative nonfiction features a certain character: Let's say it's you. But unlike a student evaluator, the creative nonfiction writer doesn't judge you by even a vague set of standards; his or her view is totally subjective and piecemeal. The writer "characterizes" you, describing a few of your traits, and, oh God, quotes selected things they claim you SAID. Even if it's a flattering characterization, your gut reaction will be to cringe or criticize. Student wrote about me in a free-write: "Catherine is very organized." What could be wrong with that, you say? Well, she didn't add that I am also very beautiful! I don't believe that anyone who has ever been quoted in print thinks he or she has been quoted correctly. But there you are on paper, exposed to the eyes of strangers, and a mere pawn in the writer's world.

So, yes, real people will feel annoyed and upset when they read what you wrote about them--even if what you wrote was nice. What you wrote won't ever match what they'd write about themselves, if they could; but they can't. Your job as a nonfiction writer: Honesty. And maybe for the sake of peace not presenting your "characters" with a gift-wrapped copy of what you wrote. If they find it themselves they can always say that you didn't know any better.