AWP 2012: The Ethics of Writing Nonfiction

Posted on 08 March 2012

The AWP session “Selling Out Everyone You Love: The Ethics of Writing Nonfiction” featured Krista Bremer, Lee Martin, Cheryl Strayed, Stephen Elliott, and Poe Ballantine (I missed Poe Ballantine, though – had to leave early to make an appointment).

The “selling out” part of the session title comes from a Joan Didion quote, but most of these writers were quick to point out that they don’t believe writing memoir equals selling out/betraying family members. But they do suggest proceeding with caution.

Here are a few highlights from the session:

Krista Bremer:

  • Simply having a voice in my family is taboo. Women are supposed to hover like angels around men. If I play by my family’s rules, my only option is breaking into the business of writing Hallmark cards.
  • Always assume everyone you know will read [whatever you publish].
  • Each story/event/memory has as many versions as there were people involved in them. Be humble in your recollections.
  • What triggers emotions in people will surprised you.
  • Publication is addictive, but my family is mine for life – I’ll be dealing with them long after my words are recycled.
  • If you’re having difficulty deciding to publish something, decide: What is the most life-enhancing choice for you? The life-enhancing choice is not always the easy one.

Stephen Elliott:

  • Reading yourself in someone else’s work is like failing a test you didn’t know you were taking.
  • You need to be fair. If the writing’s not fair, it’s not good writing.
  • People think: “You can write about my good side or my bad side, but not the side of me that I don’t know about.”
  • The best thing to do is to let family members read the sections about them. You’re not asking for permission; it’s a sign of respect. They will rarely, rarely try to stop you from publishing it.

Lee Martin:

  • Memoir is as much about the future as it is the past.
  • You have to be honest with yourself and others – if that’s selling out, then so be it.
  • Readers can tell when writers are afraid to go all the way (to where it’s deepest, most painful, most complex). They feel cheated and lose trust for the writer. Press on to the place of discomfort.
  • You volunteer to be a character in your memoir; others don’t.

Cheryl Strayed:

  • Write fearlessly. But being “fearless” means you are going to be afraid.
  • There’s a balance between fearlessness and integrity.
  • In a family, the value might be, “Don’t tell the truth about painful things,” but the opposite is true for artists.
  • You’re not going to get permission [to write your memoir/nonfiction].
  • Sometimes, negotiating with the people in your life [about what you write about] is necessary.
  • Some stories you can choose not to tell. Ask if it’s telling your story or your family member’s story.
  • Ask yourself: What will be served by telling this truth?

Photo: Yes, those are multiple signed Sugar mugs. I had to spread Sugar’s famous writerly advice to my writing buddies back home, after all.


9 responses to AWP 2012: The Ethics of Writing Nonfiction

  • Sarah W says:

    A friend of mine is writing about her family and struggling with exactly the things the panelists discussed.

    I’m going to pass your post to her — thanks for sharing it, Laura!

    • I had a certain friend in mind during this session, too. I would say that’s part of the reason I took so many notes (which would make sense, since I’m not even writing a memoir) but frankly, it was all so fascinating.

  • Lyra says:

    “Press on to the place of discomfort.”
    Yes, oh, yes. And that goes to all writing which I love. Thanks for taking notes!

  • Averil Dean says:

    Bookmarked. It’s amazing how much the memoir writers can teach us about writing in general, and especially about courage. Thanks, Laura.

  • Downith says:

    This is all so useful Laura. Thanks.

  • Teri says:

    Thank you, Laura. You took the notes I should have been taking! I was so excited to see Cheryl and Stephen I forgot to write anything down. How sad is that!

    But now. Not sad at all. I’m printing your notes right this minute.

    P.S. AmyG sent me a link to Garden & Guns. I swear I didn’t think such a magazine existed, yet, there it is.

    • I just googled Garden and Gun and admit I am a tiny bit disappointed that the website doesn’t feature an image of Grandma standing among her marigolds while holding an assault rifle. Instead, I found:

      “Garden & Gun is an idea about how to live — how to live a life that is more engaged with the land, the literature, the music, the arts, the traditions, the food, and the authenticity that has shaped the Southern way of life. It is about truly appreciating the richness of the South and knowing how that understanding can enrich one’s life and translate beyond Southern geography.”

      Who knows, though — that Grandma image might be in the magazine’s pages somewhere.

      • Teri says:

        Oh you KNOW grandma is in there somewhere! She’s the Where’s Waldo of Garden and Guns.

        This doesn’t mean I won’t submit a dog story to them.

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