Most of our editors also write and occasionally they write for us about craft. Here is a reflection from assistant editor, Ryan Diller.
The Ethics of Personal Nonfiction
It’s hard to write creative nonfiction without bringing in the personal; even some of the genre’s great research writers, like Jon Krakaeur and David Foster Wallace, cannot help but embed their biases and experiences into their works. Many CNF writers have gone so far to argue that it is impossible to write without bringing in personal biases. After all, to break through the bland, detached style stereotypically associated with nonfiction – a style that masquerades as objective – is a hallmark of CNF. But when we insert our own perspectives into nonfiction, we face a tough moral question: how do we responsibly and respectfully write about others from our highly subjective viewpoints?
If we publish our works, we face offending the dubiously named “innocent.” It’s a legitimate, empathetic concern. Even I can’t say with 100% certainty that I’d like any and all aspects of my past broadcasted to the public. Some writers have tried to get around this obstacle by changing names and obscuring the features of the people who inspired their characters, but, as Ryan Van Meter demonstrates in his wonderful essay, “If You Knew Then What I Know Now,” this can defeat the entire purpose of writing nonfiction. In this piece, Van Meter recalls his attempts to turn an adolescent trauma – an incident in which two boys mocked him for his homosexuality, which he had not yet come to terms with – into fiction, but when he tries to rename the boys who harassed him, he can’t “find the perfect substitutes for the names Mark or Jared. Without Mark or Jared the story somehow won’t work.” For whatever reason, tiny, random details like these can be what make pieces ring true or false.
For me, what makes Van Meter’s piece compassionate and not an act of literary vengeance is the balance with which he tells the piece. Having written about my own personal traumas, I know that it’s extremely difficult to treat abusers mercifully, avoid blaming yourself, and be true to your strong visceral experiences all at the same time. Van Meter solves this dilemma in the essay’s conclusion by mixing them all at once, demonstrating the complexity of reencountering his abuser years after the fact. When Van Meter forgives Jared at a ten-year high school reunion, Jared gives him a friendly shoulder squeeze, which “feels a little like the warmth of comfort, and a little like the squeeze of danger.” Complexity and moderateness, empathy and self-honesty: they can seem contradictory, but it’s their blend that makes Van Meter’s piece so captivating and what I believe can make personal writing generous, rather than selfish.
Writing about the personal can be a deeply terrifying experience. Will my abuser contact me again (for this reason, I actually break from the Van Meter Principle. Also, I hold out the hope that maybe the perpetrator of my trauma has changed)? Will I alienate the ones I love? Will I remember the way my aunt’s nose wiggled correctly, or am I failing to do justice to my family’s mythos?
But to share one’s own past honestly can be a magnanimous thing when done well. It can assure others that they aren’t alone in their struggles, and it can maybe even result in your relationships with others actually getting better (hey, I’m trying to be optimistic here).