I am up to my eyeballs in getting ready for my two workshops at the Oregon Christian Writers conference in Salem tomorrow. I'll be teaching one session on "Writing a Newspaper Column" and one on "Telling Your Story: Discover the Thread."
One thing I want to cover is the ethics of writing stories about your life. This involves, among other things, mentioning other people.
And it is astonishing, the different reactions people have to possibly being written about. From: "NOW THIS DOESN'T GO IN THE NEWSPAPER, YOU HEAR ME??" to "Ooooo, I'm so excited, I got Quote of the Day on Life in the Shoe!!!!!!" And some people really don't care if you write about them or not--it simply doesn't matter to them.
I don't think anyone ought to be offended at being mentioned in passing, either on a blog or something more formal like a newspaper piece. "I borrowed a cup of sugar from Aunt Susie."
Longer involvements and quotes usually require permission, depending on the context.
If I don't have the time or a way to ask permission, I'll change names and garble identity.
But mostly, I try to be accurate and kind. Which can be tough, because not everyone in your life was kind, loving, and wise. Your story is no good if it isn't honest. But what's to be gained by laying out the brutal facts about people who don't have the same platform to tell their side?
I recently decided to read Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, by Rhoda Janzen. Obviously I was intrigued with the Mennonite aspect of the story, and the coming home after many years angle.
But I find it a disturbing book. I've read maybe a quarter of it, and these are my impressions.
First of all, the author presents herself as an intelligent, literary, worldly-wise woman. She is very funny and snarky and clever. Her chapter structures are brilliant. And her turns of phrase. Her portrayals of Mennonite quirks are stellar, although of Russian Mennonite culture rather than the side I'm familiar with.
But. She has been through terrible physical suffering, from surgery and a car accident, and through worse emotional suffering, from a completely crazy, selfish husband whom she propped up for years before he finally left her. But you don't get a sense that this has softened and refined her, deep down. Instead, you get the sense that she's a teenage girl who's determined not to cry in front of you, so she talks louder and louder and laughs more and more, just to make you think she is SO over it.
She also uses repeated vulgarities of every description. It seems there was a stripe of reader she was trying to shock, and another stripe she was trying to impress. I can understand a few words for authenticity, but this is way too gratuitous and too much.
But. What really caught my eye was her portrayal of her family. Her dad is portrayed with humor but some respect, her mom is portrayed as lovable but very eccentric, with far too much private information, I thought. And the sisters-in-law are chopped up into tiny slices and hung out to dry.
I wondered how her family felt about this, and found a blog post by Shirley Showalter. Shirley approaches the subject delicately--this was the author's experience, her perspective, her story, her journey, her process, after all. We all perceive the same event differently, etc. etc. I got the sense it was not ok to say, "Rhoda Janzen was downright mean sometimes."
Me: I am so utterly tired.
Ben: Do you need a hug?
Jenny: Wow, I didn't think Ben would be this nice when Amanda wasn't here!