The Trouble With Writing Is

“Writers are always selling someone out.”
-Joan Didion

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Years ago I was sitting in a lecture hall in Idaho and Leslie Jamison came to read for us & speak with us. She taught a workshop we had in which I’d written a horrid story and she was kind about it and chose one scene which I might extract and reuse: a dinner scene. I told her I’d recently been fixated with maraschino cherries, and later that night when she signed my book she adorned her name with hand-drawn cherries. I felt the swell of being seen.

In the evening when she read I was transfixed, in love, sworn by allegiance to read everything she would publish in the coming years. She read from, The Empathy Exams, which were still underway at the time. She read of the Loneliest Whale. I could relate. But more than anything I understood that nonfiction had nothing to do with me, and everything to do with me at once, bound up into a single sentence.

When the questions came someone asked, how do you reckon with writing about other people, about your family, about strangers, about anyone? Because the question that remains at the heart of all nonfiction writers is: what is true and who am I to tell that truth?

Is my truth is truer than your truth, because it is mine? But say you remember things differently. Your perception your own. Your experience your own. And mine is mine. What if I wasn’t even there? Is the barn yellow or red, and does it matter? What if you are nothing more than are a passing detail in the night, a shadow on a nightstand, a story he tells me in the afternoon with the blinds drawn so the neighbors cannot see me?

Her answer to the question went something like this; that you have to weigh it. Someone will be upset more often than not. That you have to write it, but then you must weigh what you will lose or damage by allowing the world to see it. That one should often push forth but now and then there are ones that remain in desk drawers, written but never read.

I apologize but I don’t agree often. I agree with Leslie. I have my drawers, essays in which my father might cringe or an old lover wish me dead. I keep those, for now. But for the most part, I reckon, I weigh, and I write. Because my world is mine and all that passes through is a lense in which to examine myself, my beliefs, and my hurt. Is it not the point, to render the random into something meaningful in which we might use as a road map to something more? The passing details, the shadow on a dresser, the stories he tells with the blinds drawn in the afternoon so the neighbors cannot see.


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