Writing about living people raises a host of legal, personal, and literary issues. If these complications escape your notice while you’re in the throes of writing, try flipping through a family album sometime. Resist the undertow of sentimentality and nostalgia and instead consider the people you see as changeable human beings, with relationships with each other and a relationship with you.
How do you write about your relatives while taking all this complexity fully into account? How do you write about them—truthfully and candidly—without disturbing these relationships?
If your relatives are both your sources and your subjects, you must be diplomatic, ethical, compassionate, respectful, critical, skeptical, and detached. It’s a demanding performance, but the success of your writing—to say nothing of your relationships—depends on it.
Once you begin interviewing your relatives, your first goal is to keep them talking. You’ll never get all the information you need at one sitting, so it will be necessary to go back to the well—perhaps many times. Interviews also call for people management skills. Sometimes our subjects avoid a topic or wander off track. Sometimes their memories falter. We have to bring them back to the question at hand.
So you have to bring tact and diplomacy to your interviews and your writing. We have to put our subjects at ease by being transparent our aims. We must convince them that we have no hidden agenda in exploring the past. But I also believe we must interview our subjects with firmness. It’s not necessary to shy away from all areas of controversy. Instead we must learn to assert our own beliefs without arguing.
Anyone writing personal history must also approach the job with a sense of its ethical boundaries. “I don’t believe in a writer’s kicking around people who don’t have access to a printing press,” Annie Dillard once said. It’s a high-minded sentiment, expressing evenhandedness and fair play. With today’s widespread access to blogs and social media, our subjects have a greater ability to answer back than ever before. But the notion of fair play still holds. We should use our writing as a way to explore the past, not as a platform for prosecution or settling scores.
Finally, I believe we have to respect our subjects’ privacy, even as we are investigating their lives and asking them to reveal the past. People live with varying degrees of openness. They act in passion and sometimes regret their actions afterwards. They lock up vital pieces of themselves in vaults of memory because to share these pieces would be to surrender something essential about themselves. A wish for privacy is an intrinsic human trait. To violate your subject’s privacy would be a transgression.
Finally, there are literary issues, which I’ll touch on here, then cover in more detail next week. Good writing requires a certain measure of detachment. Writing a hot-headed, vindictive piece is the quickest way to undermine your own credibility. The polemic is often less convincing than a coolheaded piece of analysis. Cultivate detachment instead. Put your own feelings in the background. When you can’t do that, recognize them and acknowledge them, either tacitly to yourself or explicitly in your writing. Anger, idol worship, contempt, or fawning, uncritical admiration—all of these things damage our writing.
When do you show a manuscript to your family? While it is under development? When publication is imminent? Or only after publication?
Writers, please share your thoughts.
© 2012 – 2014, Andy Kubrin. All rights reserved.
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