Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Be Generous (When Writing About People You Don't Like)

"You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better." --Anne Lamott

A couple months ago I attended a lecture by the great Mormon scholar and historian Claudia Bushman about the importance of women writing their histories. If we want to have a future, we have to have a history.

After presenting her data, collections and experience of compiling an anthology of Mormon women's stories, we were allowed to ask questions. Someone in the audience asked about the ever-present conundrum of writing about people who were unkind to us--those who abused us, mistreated us, presented a bad character for the stories of our lives--what about those people? And in my world, I think about this in a public sphere--how do we write publicly about these people? Some of us still carry fear around them, and some of them are still our uncles, and some of them read our blogs.

Claudia's response was this, "Be generous."

I thought about that response. And I thought about it some more and I am still thinking about it.

Be generous. I suppose she meant, don't be overly demonizing of the antagonists of your stories. They are, after all, people. But I have also thought about flipping this idea, and saying, be generous about the truth. It seems to me, when we can look at a person's life honestly and without any blurry technique of carefully-worded manipulation, we can feel empathy for just about anyone. If you choose to write about people in your life publicly, choose to write about them truthfully. And be generous with that truth.

Truth, isn't perspective. When writing about someone, take yourself out of the character assessment and try to see them as neutral. Your perspective is tainted and you will have to own up to that. But truth considers all the factors, it consumes an entire being, it doesn't omit the good or the bad or the ugly--honesty embraces them all with balance and enlightenment. If you choose write truthfully, everyone wins. Truth makes everything illuminated and right.

And be generously truthful with yourself too.

Truth also doesn't float to the top easily. It's usually anchored, weighed down at the bottom of an ocean of human nature. So don't trust your first instinct. Dig and dig and dig before you are sure you've found the bottom. When I wrote about Page yesterday, about how she felt her worth was in her fertility, it was the result of many, many conversations about who we are as people and as sisters. When we write we are anthropologists of the soul--digging and digging until we've pieced together our personal mysteries.

Anyway, that's it: be generous. Every once and awhile stop your fingers from clacking on that keyboard and ask yourself, Am I being generous? To myself? To others? To the situation? To the scenery? To the sentiment? To the truth?


Want to discuss this more? We're on facebook today chatting about it. Join us!

18 comments:

Meg said...

I find it intetesting that you wrote this today. Just last night I read a blog of a girl who use to be a good friend. I helped her with many things and talked to her for hours about her struggles in joining the gospel. I encouraged and cheered her on. Then all of a sudden she turned sour towards me. She totally blew me off and has been very unkind. I read a post where she openly complained about something I had done to her. There was a situation over a year ago where I felt she had crossed a line in her personal communications with me. I had seen her doing the same thing in public forums which I knew I couldn't say anything about but when it came to the personal level I felt it was time. The hurtful thing is not that she publicly wrote that she didn't like me doing this, but that she got the facts wrong and accused me of words and actions in that exchange that were not true (I have the email to prove it). So I agree with what you say- be generous and if you are going to shed a negative but truthful light on someone in your life, make sure you do it with all the correct facts.

Chris and Erin said...

Writing for the whole world to see is different, but I appreciate honesty the whole story. My dad was ill for many years before he died in 2008. He wrote a personal history of over 200 pages and photos. I liked learning and hearing about his childhood, the true childhood. Even though that includes an alcoholic Dad (my favorite grandpa) affairs, abuse, etc I want to know it all. It gave me such insight into the people my aunts, uncles, and grandparents are today. They are still wonderful people inspite of or perhaps because of all those dirty little secrets.

eliana23 said...

This is good. I'm going to use this in my writing. Gracias.

Marvia said...

Get ready for a random comment. :)

I just watched the most recent Star Trek movie and it was the first of anything Star Trek I've watched. I don't count random clips I've seen in my life. This part of our pop culture went over my head growing up. Anyway, I loved the movie so much that I have decided to start from the beginning and watch 1966 Star Trek Series. Pure awesomeness.

With that background, your post reminded me of the 6th episode (I think it's the 6th) called "The Enemy Within". It was great. Somehow Captain Kirk was split in 2, the good and the bad. The conversation resulted that he couldn't live without the raw animal side of him because it gave him the courage and fire to lead the USS Enterprise.

hahaha! So I feel so silly at this moment because I've NEVER talked about Star Trek before but it left me pondering what I perceive as a weakness or strength in myself and how I represent myself. We must see ourselves as a whole.

Don't you feel inspired? :)

CSB said...

Love your perspective. And Anne Lamott's quote. Great points you ladies have.

Sara Jolie said...

I adore this post. Especially the first quote!!! But having said that, the truth will make people hate you sometimes. But I don't hate you...no worries! ;) I think you are a great writer.

Delightful Domestic Science said...

I don't think we can ever find pure truth. We are all imperfect and our perspective will always colour our truth some how. We have to own our actions or inaction. We have to own our voices and what we choose to share. We have to own that neutral isn't a place we can completely, completely find if we've been hurt. Our truth may just be disconnect or feined indifference.

lecx5 said...

One of the most interesting autobiographies in years, "The Glass Castle", by Jeannette Walls, broke new ground b/c of the unabashed, plain-speaking of the truth as she wrote about her childhood. It was fascinating to read - just the truth, unvarnished. She wrote in such a non-judgmental way, just presenting the facts, made for an amazing tale. It has changed the way I want to journal, the things I want to remember and the way I want to present them for my children. The facts, just the facts, just the narrative, can be so powerful when describing the good and the bad (and the ugly).

Ali said...

Dear Courtney,

This post was full of truth, and brilliance.

I tried to pick my favourite line: "It seems to me, when we can look at a person's life honestly and without any blurry technique of carefully-worded manipulation, we can feel empathy for just about anyone. " ... causing me to think that when we can be generous and completely honest with ourselves - perhaps the hardest job of all - we are naturally honest and generous with all the rest.

Thank you for making us think today!
Best wishes as always,
From Switzerland
Ali

Marcismullings said...

You can't know how badly I needed this. It's like your post was written directly to me. Thank you!

Vanessa said...

Just read this for the third time. It is helping me work through this problem of mine. Gracias.

Joree jemmsplace said...

This has been my dilemma with writing my personal history. I loved how you did yours, being honest about your mother's and grandmother's opinions about your body. I think your kids will be able to look at that and realize the choices you have made. I want my children to look at my personal history and understand why I did the things I did. However, many of the choices I'm making as a new parent are because I DO NOT want to be the same type of mother as my own mom. She was a good mom, but I want to be a different mom. Truthfully, I want to be a better mom! So I struggle with how to write an honest history, knowing that she might read it. Did your mom read your history? Was she offended by it? I'll have to think more on this "Be generous" thought, as well. Thanks for this post!

C. Jane Kendrick said...

@Joree I can't think of a better way to honor your mother than to want to be a good mother--an even better mother. I hope my daughters correct my mistakes in their turn and I hope I can have the humility to champion them in doing it.
I think it's something we have to model ourselves, breaking traditions and changing things on the hope our daughters will do the same.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to be a different mother than your mother. No shame in it at all.

ellen said...

I'm the RSP and taught the first Sunday lesson in June about "telling our stories" (with the quote taken from Anne Lamott). Bravo.

Kate Boyle said...

This is something I have struggled with, cjane, so thanks for addressing it. I would like very much to write about something that happened in my past, but I don't want to hurt my family members by discussing it online. And while I don't want to demonize the person who caused me pain, the things he did were not nice (to put it mildly). So this is giving me something to think about. I keep feeling almost a prompting to write about it. Thanks for bringing it up. Maybe I'll write some rough drafts and keep the generosity in mind while revising.

marymary said...

I think writing the truth is a noble aspiration, but I think it's also terribly important to recognize that our ability to know the real, whole "truth" about another person is always limited, no matter how well we seek to understand. Usually we read the scripture "man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart" as a piece of instruction, i.e. we should look on the heart like the Lord does, not just on the outward appearance. That's useful, and we should do our best to look past appearances and understand one another's hearts, but I think the scripture is also just laying out an important fact: only the Lord has the power to look at someone and see her heart; all we get to see as mortals is what we can glean from her outward appearance. And that's part of why the advice to be generous is so useful. It's the golden rule. There are so many possible motives for the same action, and since we want to be judged mercifully ourselves, we likewise give others the benefit of the doubt.

Jessica said...

"Truth also doesn't float to the top easily. It's usually anchored, weighed down at the bottom of an ocean of human nature. So don't trust your first instinct. Dig and dig and dig before you are sure you've found the bottom. When I wrote about Page yesterday, about how she felt her worth was in her fertility, it was the result of many, many conversations about who we are as people and as sisters. When we write we are anthropologists of the soul--digging and digging until we've pieced together our personal mysteries."

I think this is one of the finest quotes I have ever read about writing.

I'm only 19, but reading your life story has inspired me to be a more honest, intentional blogger and to share things that are true to who I am, what I experience, and what I believe. It's hard. (I'm sure you know this) But while it's a continuing process, writing and thinking honestly are the most freeing and wonderful things I have ever done in my life.

Thank you.

Bennions said...

Reserving Judgements is a matter of infinite hope. Great Gatsby Just a thought.