When I was at the AWP conference last week, I attended a panel entitled “The Ethics of the Artist: Writing About Family in Essay and Memoir. The panel of authors comprised of top authors of memoir: Alice Eve Cohen, Julie Metz, Aspen Matis, and Honor Moore, moderated by Laura Cronk of The New School.
Alice Eve Cohen, author of “What I Thought I Knew: A Memoir” answered a question posed to the entire panel by Ms. Cronk. The question was – who do family members of a memoir deal with being part of an experience reiterated through the filter and subjective view of the author. What about their side of the story? How about what they perceived? Ms. Cohen said this (and I’m paraphrasing):
“You know, my husband and daughter (who are very much part of this memoir) told me before coming here that they were going to set up a panel of family members featured in best selling memoirs over on the other side of the convention center hallway at the same time I’m scheduled on this panel and call it “The Family of the Best Selling Memoirists: Our Side of the Story”.
Perception. If a story you write belongs to you, then what does it mean for the people who are part of your story? What was their concept of the experiences at hand? Would the story be a drastically different one if they told it?
There are two sides to the coin of personal auto-biographical storytelling. There’s your side, the one of the writer telling the succession of events either through linear or non-linear telling, and the view of those on the other side.
When I think of this two way concept of literature or memorization, I often think of the 1986 New York Mets and the Boston Red Sox World Series outcome.
As a Mets fan, the 1986 post season was a miraculous roller coaster ride of deadly lows and euphoric highs. They overcame losses with luck and good timing to win improbably time and again. When you thought they were done. They weren’t. Especially during the World Series when in game six that ball drifted between Bruckner’s legs and Mookie Wilson helped propel the Mets to a win. They went on to game 7 and took the whole thing.
As a Boston Reds Sox fan, 1986 was just another historical disappointment in a long time history of no championship wins. For them, our celebration was their classic and profound loss, another kick in the gut. The video would play out again and again in Red Sox history as a moment of lost opportunity, a low, disgusting point, a potential win that was so heartlessly and devastatingly taken away from them – again. It was cruel.
While we celebrated for thirty years, Red Sox fans mourned until 2004 when they finally won the World Series. While we were on the right side of history, with photos of the celebration hanging on the walls of Shea and Citifield, Sox fans wrestled with the torturous pain and vast disappointment. While replays of that moment were and are played on the Diamondvision in Flushing, Red Sox fans had to re-live the loss in their minds while family members who never lived to see the Sox win a World Series, passed away.
I was on the right side of history. My Red Sox fan friends were on the wrong side. We each came away with two different tellings of that World Series, two different feelings, two different views of what that one story and outcome of events meant to us.
In 2004, I paid it back and rooted for the Red Sox to win the whole thing. And they did with a repeat in 2007, while my Mets sank into mediocrity and a longer off season vacation.
Two sides of a story produced two different stories.
The one thing that was discussed by the authors at AWP was how to deal with the reaction of those who are part of the story and have their side to tell. Some family members in their book were horrified or indifferent to the publishing of these books. One family member wrote a book to David Remnick of ‘The New Yorker’ pleading with him to not publish an excerpt from her book “The Bishop’s Daughter”, to which Remnick went ahead and published it anyway. Honor is estranged from that brother, along with other siblings who took offense to her telling the story of their father.
It was mentioned strongly, that as long as you write your truth and represent those in your history with compassion – not hate, you will honor their side with grace, especially if you’ve brought the other members of the story in on what you’re writing. Let them have their say, but stay strong in your veracity. They are free to write their side any time. In fact, what an interesting thing for readers to read: Two sides of a story!
Always be brave in telling your story. Even though there are two sides to every one of them, it’s our right to show our fairness and our strength in the telling.
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