Sunday, February 10, 2013

on memoir

The New York Times Sunday Review section had a piece today on memoir and how writing about family involves appropriating real people to use as characters in a narrative that only reflects the writer's perspective. Alexander Stille writes:
The writer is taking events that belong to several people, appropriating them for himself, and turning them into something that feels alien to those who have lived them ... It must have been like seeing someone else wearing your favorite coat: it would look recognizable, but totally different and totally wrong. 
In short, I had not treated my aunt as a human being, as something infinitely complex and, in effect, unknowable. I had turned her into a character in a book. A book in which she wasn’t even the protagonist.
It's an apt summary of something I was already thinking about this week. I published an essay on The Hairpin detailing my dog's diagnosis of cancer and how it relates to my own recent bout with the disease. Reminiscing about my dog, I wrote:
When my family first met Kippy 13 years ago, we didn’t want him. He was part of a litter of Tibetan terriers, and we had our pick. I was in love with a little black lady. My mom was starry-eyed for the litter’s chunky alpha puppy. Nobody noticed the brown guy in the corner. But he picked us, toddling over to my brother and making it clear that, when we left, he’d be coming too.
It was a short passage, apart from the central point, to illustrate how much the dog grew in our hearts, from unwanted to adored. But it wasn't how my brother remembered it. 

"u need to edit this, there is a factual mistake, i wanted to bring him home the first time we met them," he wrote on Facebook.

I replied in a way I hoped would both sound relatively kind and would shut him down. "It's not a factual error because that's not how I remember things, the 'we' doesn't necessarily include you, and it's a piece from my perspective." But there's the rub: I'm the writer in the family, so my perspective is the one the world is going to see, shaped and shined both to reflect my memory and to fit into my artistic vision for a given work. 

My brother was a passing mention in the piece. But in real life, he's a real person with his own internal narrative about events we both experienced and who is also grappling with the impending death of our beloved pet. As I writer, I stand by my right to narrativize my life in my art. And my life includes other people. But as a person, I'm bracing for what may well be a lifetime of listening to friends and family protest their presence in my prose, and I proceed mindful that my ability to tell stories comes with great responsibility.  

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

clip dump

Here's some recent work:

NYRB celebrates its 50th (CJR)

Dog Shadow (The Hairpin)

Tracking the NYT's evolving Koch obit (CJR)

Good Times (CJR)