Last night, my wonderful and very cold-ridden boyfriend came over after getting off his late work shift. We talked over tea, he dosed himself with Nyquil, and we curled up in bed. After a couple of hours I woke up, restless in the too-hot apartment, the bright blue-fairy light of my computer speakers blazing from the distant wall. I tried to find a good arm position. That failed. I tried to balance my desire to snuggle with my desire to avoid his fevered, germ-laden breath. That failed too.
When I'm trying to fall asleep, my mind wanders toward projects in progress; in this case, a book proposal I've been been considering since my January VCCA stint. Last night, I realized an idea for a narrative arc--one that resonated with life decisions I'm in the thick of right now. For the next 40 minutes, my mind poked and prodded. This could work. Episodes that had previously felt like nothing more than dissonant essays began to cohere in my mind as sequences, chapters, a braiding of memories with experiences that could be researched and reported.
Well into my second hour of wakefulness, I jumped out of bed. It was 5 AM. I grabbed my notebook and used the last match in the box to light a votive, wary of the kitchen's fluorescent glow. I poured a small glass of carrot juice, and tipped into it a swallow of vodka leftover from earlier. I scribbled until the clouds began to lighten outside.
The spell was broken, energy vented. I crawled back into bed. He wrapped his arms around me and rested his lips on the nape of my neck. That's when it hit me: this man, who also came into my life during that January VCCA stint, is in the story going forward. He is both high spire and brick foundation. He is part of the adventure.
An adventure that I will, one way or another, commit to the page. The Author rejoices in having a witness, a trusted and funny voice in dialogue for the ride. The Girlfriend wonders: Is this something we talk about? Do I ask permission?
This is a memoirist's problem. I don't face this with poems. Though we sense the texture of inspiring truth, it's understood we talk about the poem as invention. In readings, even those most revealing poem is one among many. There are other things to talk about afterwards.
I once had a man forbid me from writing about him in any form. It was stifling. It spooked me out of drafting for months. Another, an artist himself, would say "It's all material." I wonder if that maxim has ever been tested with him on the other end of the art. The first question I got after reading a personal essay at Frostburg State University this past summer was, "So, how much of that is true?" My flustered response--"um, all of it"--flip-flopped in my stomach as I considered the shady activities committed by a central (albeit unnamed) character. Right now, that essay is a finalist for a contest that offers a reading in the town where said "character" lives. It's one thing to write honestly about our weaker moments. It's another thing to deliver them to his doorstep.
Sometimes students and aspiring memoirists ask me about the risk of writing about real people. I have no problem defending the ethics. There are very few cases where someone is at legitimate risk of lawsuit for libel or slander. What you are really worried about is making your dear ones mad at you. And I can't assure you that won't happen.
"Isn't everyone flattered to see themselves in print, deep down?" No. Writers say things like that to each other, forgetting that we're writers. Our worldview is warped. My principle is that nothing is off limits, as long as 1) I've made my best effort at being truthful, and 2) I'm as hard on myself as anyone else in the scene. I stand by that. I remind myself of the revelatory nonfiction that I've read over the years, which meant so much to me, that may have been hard for that author's dear ones to see themselves in at the time. But principle is cold comfort when you lose someone over creative work.
If I could go back in time, are there pieces I'd spike, paragraphs I'd strike? No. That makes me feel selfish, but no. Second-guessing yourself as a memoirist is the worst pesticide. You don't just kill a weed; you contaminate the soil.
All of this is to say that when we woke up, puttering around the apartment and drinking orange juice, I did not ask.
Writers don't get a pass from the social pact. We have to give as good as we get--which might mean suspending judgment, cheering on a friend's decision that you'd never make for yourself, letting your own less-than-flattering moment go up on someone else's canvas. But when you surround yourself with the right people, those who go the distance of a lifetime, they recognize the capacities that you have to exercise to thrive. It is inseparable from their love of you. No permissions necessary.