Telling Stories. Or, Brenna Talks Ethics (sort of)

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

16 thoughts on “Telling Stories. Or, Brenna Talks Ethics (sort of)

  1. I recently wrote a short story on my journal about someone in particular, without giving the people in the story any names and written in a way that I felt could be applied to a series of situations. In truth I wrote it as a result of me not being able to express how I really felt about them to their face at the time and I worried that once they read it (since they read my journal) that they would know and be offended. Surprisingly they weren’t though, in fact they loved it, but they did know it was about them. Several other readers read it though and felt attached to it as well, like it did achieve what I was hoping – being able to be applied to a variety of different situations.
    I agree with you, it’s a tricky thing. In my current WIP, so much of it bleeds me and the hidden things I’ve never shared with people that sometimes I worry that I’m putting too much out there, but those who are reading it while I write, and know me better than anyone, don’t seem to pick up on the secrets. I guess this makes me feel good. (Maybe?) But then I’ve written other stories where it will absolutely be inspired by something or someone I’m completely obsessed with at the time and a reader will straight up call me out on it, like – Why don’t you just give them the same name already? –
    I guess it’s definitely something that takes practice. It’s not always easy to be tactful, but I think stories wouldn’t have quality substance if they weren’t in some way a reflection of the writer themselves or those they’ve been surrounded by in life. We just have to hope and pray we don’t hurt anyone in the manner we go about it.

    • Several other readers read it though and felt attached to it as well
      I think this is really important—the idea that what you’re writing is more than just the event you’re recounting. When a personal anecdote speaks to someone else, that’s almost like proof that there’s meaning there beyond a series of facts. I ♥ meaning!
      so much of it bleeds me and the hidden things I’ve never shared
      I love the writing that comes out of these moments, though (partially because I am so nosy it’s not funny). This is where we find the good stuff.

  2. ZOMG, PLEASE, let your next book or next next book be about all this high school stuff. It’s just AMAZING. So engrossing. I can’t get enough. It’s like eating chocolate. It’s so REAL, but also achingly beautiful.
    P.S. Did you write this stuff while you were still in high school? Because I hope you know that it sounds exactly like published stuff I’m reading now by best-selling authors. Actually, better.
    P.P.S. Your writing reminds me of stuff by Judy Blume and Melina Marchetta. YOU’RE SO GOOD!

    • Next-next-next book, maybe :) I have something I’m working on (it’s my pet project), but I don’t know where it fits in the publishing timeline. Right now, what I write tends to be pretty high-concept, but eventually I’d like to do something that blends the fantastical and the personal, and I think my Back-Burner Project might just be it!
      And yes, I did actually write the Courier New sections when I was in high school, but before you go thinking I was some literary marvel, I wrote lots—lots lots lots—of other un-good, completely pedestrian stuff too. (I tried to be good, but that’s not always how practice works.) Now, I just get to go through and pull the really nice paragraphs :)
      Also, I was raised on Judy Blume, and I love Melina Marchetta!

  3. Someone was just telling me today, almost as a sneer because that’s just how he talks to me, that I could get sued for writing a story about someone’s life without their permission and I told him that you can just change the names. I thought, why would you want to write about someone’s life like that with nothing added in? Why would you want to read something like that? If you like something that you see in them, then you should just use that with another name. But reading this, I realize that that only shows how I feel about these people. I can write about my best friend, my sister. But I just don’t care enough about everyone else to write about them. Maybe a trait, something I see in them, but not who they are. But I think that’s my fault. I don’t take the time to get to know them. I feel detached from them, like I don’t relate that well. I see how you write about how you felt like you were more on the outside, and I see myself in that. This whole thing that you said right here is completely true.

    • I think that’s my fault. I don’t take the time to get to know them.
      If I’m actually honest (which I try to be—I do try), there have been plenty of times in my life where I didn’t take the time to get to know people. Sometimes I regretted it later, but mostly, that was just the way things were for me at that particular moment. Phase sounds so dismissive, but I think we go through phases where we’re focused on different areas of our lives and need different things.
      When I was in high school—especially 10th grade—I needed to know how social situations worked and what people were really like. Later? I just wasn’t looking for that anymore.
      I think how we relate to people is very revealing, but sometimes it just reveals a lot about the particular situation, rather than defining who we are.

  4. I’m not sure I have any answers to give you about this conundrum, but I applaud you for thinking about it.
    I was for some time written about extensively in somebody else’s journal, where there was absolutely no attempt to hide who I was — the author didn’t even allow me the protection of a pseudonym, using my real legal name and e-mail address in the writing on more than one occasion. that the author didn’t allow me the protection of privacy was a violation in some ways even worse than the problems that led to the dissolution of our relationship in the first place. I knew then, as I know now, that the writing did come out of a place of love and an attempt to figure out how to narrate and make sense of the events that have brought us briefly together. So for a long time I didn’t speak up, because I thought he had a right to tell that story in whatever way would help him. But eventually I needed my privacy, and I’m still proud of myself for the fact that I gathered the courage to contact him and ask for it several years later.
    Maybe what I’m trying to say here is that love isn’t the only thing that matters, manners are important too?*Small laugh* But you already know that.

    • Yikes! If someone had asked me, I don’t know that I could have said specifically what I consider unethical, but having someone give up all your personal details is a perfect example of what I think of as unethical writing. Not to mention a HUGE invasion of privacy!
      I knew then, as I know now, that the writing did come out of a place of love
      This is a really interesting point—that someone can do something out of love and it can still be very hurtful. When I say “love,” I think I do mean love, but also lots of other words like consideration and courtesy and respect. There’s a complicated feeling I get when I write about other people, and it says to me that no, I don’t have a right to tell a story any which-way. I have a right to tell a story, but one of the obligations of that story is that it not be exploitative or to the detriment of anyone else. Responsibility is hard! :)

  5. This is something I negotiate all the time. Healing is an intimate private experience and I’m cautious to empower the experience. I love what I do which makes this easier, but do I have the right to share or market myself with someone elses pain?
    Even when I’m promoting someone I have moments of doubt. Do they want me talk about them this way? Does anyone get my sense of humour? (or am I writing for an audience one) I’ve returned and deleted comments because I feel something wasn’t quite right. It’s easy to put your foot in your mouth, but it’s eternal online. I’d rather not die by, choked on a foot!
    Your insights and maturity have always amazed me. I’ve tried to improve my writing over the last 18 months to write as slick as you. I agree with the love. I love you. I love all the sisters. Not in a wow they’re my mentors way, but in a, I get it that they can love writing this much way.

    • The fact that people want to talk about each other (for various reasons) and also have a hard time doing it is really interesting to me. Also, the fact that the most meaningful things are sometimes the hardest to talk about.
      When I was younger, it always frustrated me that I could never explain any situation to my friends or family to my satisfaction. I was always trying to convey exactly what something or someone was like, and always falling short. Now, I still fall short, but I like to think I manage to get closer (at least sometimes?). I think for me, that just came out of a lot of practice and some days, I still can’t decide if I love writing because it lets me get closer, or if I get closer to my meaning because I love writing

      • I can relate to that. When I was younger I never felt like I was heard. Was I speaking a different language than every one else? I had this internal dialogue going on all the time, but either I didn’t say it the same way or I kept quiet. I remember wanting to go to the school on the weekend to play marbles with a girl. I was 9 perhaps. It was like a date, the marbles was the reason to get together. I tried asking my mother, but either she didn’t hear me, or I didn’t really ask. I didn’t go. I know the girl went, and even at 9 years old I knew I’d broken her heart. I have this imgage of her being hopeful, standing in the playground, kicking leaves of the bare earth. How long did she wait? I didn’t have an excuse on Monday, and I didn’t know what to say. I never expressed my feelings through my teen years.
        I left a comment at Tess’ place that one of the reasons I write is because I’m in a silent conversation. I don’t think I write because I love writing. I write to make up for those moments when I didn’t speak, or I wasn’t heard.

  6. This is beautiful …
    Truly, this is wonderful, and something I’ve thought about a lot as I write. I’ve often said I could never write about my family for this reason. I come from a very large, sprawling, addicted, pathological and dysfunctional family. We have secrets that keep their own secrets, and so much of the history has passed into blurry mythology that only the emotional core of the story is left at all. And even that would be too much.
    Your memories of high school are so sharp. It’s so interesting to me—I am rarely aware of the passing of time. I floated through high school, but the combination of a wake-and-bake pot habit and a preoccupation with survival left me with few tangible memories. I love the way you still have the words to provide context for your own experience.

    • Re: This is beautiful …
      Thanks for this thoughtful response. I really appreciate hearing other people weigh in on topics like this. That’s interesting about time passing—I hardly notice anymore, but when I was younger, I thought about it constantly. I felt like I was always waiting for things to be over. My best trick was that I looked like I was floating, when I was really cataloging. I think it kept people from catching on to me.
      Memory is an interesting thing. I’ve always considered myself to have a good one, but without the journals, high school is still kind of this brightly-colored smear. Then when I read what I was thinking or observing at the time, other things come back and I find I have new perspective or insight, and the whole scene looks different from when I was in it.
      Also, I like how you say that in the case of family stories, some of the history has become mythology and the emotional core is all that’s left. I think that’s true so many times, which makes it extra tricky to write about, because for me, that emotional core is almost always the most elusive part.

  7. Group work was invented for pain.
    This made me laugh, and not in that bubbly, careless way, but in the wicked, cynical, quiet way that makes everyone at the next table look at you.
    I love those random details too—the kind that, as you say, feel like some secret key to what’s happening inside. Really, when I say that I’m impossibly nosy, I just mean that I’m interested. (But only in the interesting things. I have a very low tolerance for smalltalk.)
    Geeky interests are my favorite, too. I love finding out what people like to do when there’s no one around to impress. Often, that seems to be when they do the really impressive stuff.

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