Lately, I’ve been thinking about high school. (That’s a joke, by the way—I rarely stop.) Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the problem of what I want to say and how I want to say it.
There’s no legal precedent that says a person can’t write about another person. If you change names, blur faces, skip the libel and the defamation, it’s well within your rights. But that’s the legal stuff. The ethical concerns are more complex, and those are the ones that matter here. It seems presumptuous to turn the spotlight on someone else. Worse, it seems like bad manners. People feel exposed, even if no one can see them standing there.
Little Sister Yovanoff said, “I was reading your blog about Irish the other day. I was thinking how there are maybe five people in the world who would see it and even know who you were talking about.”
And this is the truth. No one will recognize the people in my stories. No one is going to stumble upon an isolated anecdote, then turn to a friend or a coworker and say, Stop me if I’m wrong, but I think that’s you.
But people will recognize themselves.* They’ll see their likenesses, hear their own voices coming from someplace else. The more personal the story, the more likely they are to recognize themselves, even seen imperfectly through someone else’s lens, and that recognition can’t ever be counteracted by aliases and clever nicknames. Someone might read a particular story and remember how the moment felt. It might not always feel good. I know that, and it raises some very important issues about responsibility.
Here is the thing about telling the truth. To write about someone honestly, I think you have to love them a little, even though loving is not the same as knowing. People deserve to be handled with care, and I have a responsibility to be careful, and also to be honest. And yes, that’s scary. (I have spent most of my life avoiding responsibility.)
When I can, I tell people what I’m doing, let them decide if what I’ve written is okay, or if it’s too much.** It’s not perfect, but it’s the most workable solution I’ve found. Of course, another solution would be to stop writing about other people, but that comes with its own set of problems. What I’ve found is that writing about yourself and writing about other people are not always separate. Because the thing is, sometimes your stories are also their stories.
At 16, I liked to talk about myself by using other people as a mirror. I just didn’t know that’s what I was doing. At 16, I still considered myself honest. I had a mental picture of Me, unflinching. I never caved to peer pressure. I never followed for the sake of following. After all, I was agreeable but not pliable, and while I might look ridiculously tender, at the core, I considered myself kind of fearless. I played a contact sport, shot bottle rockets out of my hand, climbed out my window in the middle of the night to go running, and boys in Spanish class could lick my face all they wanted—I wasn’t going to flinch. But I was secretive to an almost pathological degree. The idea of anyone knowing a single thing about my inner-life was intolerable. It frightened me:
Everyone is addicted to something, but not the way they talk about on the anti-drug commercials. Okay, so maybe that too, but I mean like Catherine. She’s addicted to whether or not boys look at her. We’ll be standing at her locker and one of her 8 or 9 crushes will walk by. She grabs me, leaning against my shoulder and sighing extravagantly. Even just being close to boys makes her face turn red. She asks me who I like, as though we could commiserate, compare notes.
I know it’s what I’m supposed to do, but I don’t know how to act that way. It seems too dramatic and also undignified. It seems embarrassing. I can’t imagine the mere sight of someone putting that much adrenaline into your bloodstream. Okay, I can imagine it, I guess. What it would feel like, the drug of it, brittle and glassy and electric. But I can’t imagine letting it show.
As dysfunctional as it sounds, this was like my personal religion, the ruling principle of my life. The idea that anyone could know anything about me was mortifying. It probably goes without saying that it was a very hypocritical fear to have. After all, I loved seeing other people’s most authentic moments. I collected them. If I could have pinned them on a cork-board like butterflies, I would have. In a way, I kind of did.
I watch Shark-Boy. He watches Rosie, but doesn’t talk to her. That was a secret I knew about him. Angela never did. Shark-Boy, head-over-heels for Rosie.
And boys like Rosie because she’s beautiful, but that’s not the same as love. They’re nice, friendly. I think that she’s used to it. [In PE] Shark-Boy would try and do something nice for her and she wouldn’t seem to notice. He would come up behind her, wrap his arms around her, bury his face in her hair. She would say, “Stop it Shark, you’re hurting me.” Hunching her shoulders, shaking him off.
[. . .]
On Valentine’s Day, the school paper had a blank Valentine printed in each copy. “For you to give to someone special,” it said. Rosie gave hers to Bob. Shark-Boy threw his at Rosie and walked away. I didn’t give mine to anyone and reminded myself that this is pretty much how the world is.
This is not a story about Shark-Boy and Rosie. I just didn’t know it at the time. I thought I was a good little journalist. I thought I was being objective (mostly). I thought I was writing about a boy liking a girl who didn’t like him back, when I was really writing about me being shy and skinny and cynical, thinking that my blurry newsprint valentine was the stupidest thing and also wishing I had someone to give it to.
But they were relatable, recognizable. It mattered to me that they were at odds, because I was also at odds—just with something else. Everyone was at odds and that made me happy, even when it made me sad.
What I’m really trying to say is this: I think love matters. You write about someone else, and the way you portray them defines you, because sometimes other people’s stories are also your stories. Because no matter what, they had some significance in your life. They were someone—your best friend, or your neighbor, or that dead poet you idolized. You write about them because they hurt you or defended you or made you laugh or you had a crush on them or dated them or never noticed them at all until that one perfect moment when they surprised you. But you have to love them a little, because otherwise, what’s the point?***
*Here is a secret: sometimes, people will recognize themselves even when you are not talking about them.
**I do my best. Sometimes, it’s very hard to find people. If I write about you and you don’t like it, tell me. Or, if you do like it.
***“If somebody is anything less than worth loving, they aren’t likely to show up in my writing.” – Elizabeth Gilbert