What We Write about When We Write about Each Other

“My neighbor shot his friend and then shot his dog in the head and then shot himself and no one cares.” This violent incident and the apathy that followed it disturbed Sarah Carson and inspired her to write “Aftermath,” a haunting essay made up of nineteen short scenes in which she searches for her neighbor’s dog. Carson discusses the piece and examines the ethics of writing about real people and events in the post below.

Aftermath” can be found in our Winter 2015 issue. 

 

Long before I’d even considered writing my first essay, I remember being struck by hearing David Sedaris talk about his family’s reactions to the stories he writes about them.

In an episode of This American Life, Sedaris described a conversation with his sister this way: “She’s afraid to tell me anything important knowing I’ll only turn around and write about it. In my mind, I’m like a friendly junk man building things from the little pieces of scrap I find here and there. But my family started to see things differently. Their personal lives are the so-called pieces of scrap I so casually pick up. And they’re sick of it. Conversations now start with the words, ‘You have to swear you will never repeat this.’”

I was still an undergraduate when the story first aired, and I remember thinking, “Ha! He sure got them!” — as if writing about other people was some sort of practical joke or an episode of Punk’d.

Since then, I’ve come to take the responsibility of publishing work about other people more seriously. But to avoid writing about the people I know has never seemed like an option. Writing about them seems natural. Or perhaps I should say, writing about my experiences with them seems natural. And necessary. After all, what is literature for if not to share our experiences — if not to say to a reader, “You also find this thing that happened terrible or hilarious or frightening or sickening, right?”

But of course, writing about the people I know can — and should — be tricky.

Sometimes the line between what can be said and what needs to be said is obvious, but often it isn’t. When my most recent book was being published, I culled through its pages deleting anecdotes I’d shared about family and friends that they likely wouldn’t want people reading.

My editor protested. “But this is your art,” she urged.

“But this is also my life,” I replied.

Now I am constantly sending emails to people saying, “Hey, I mentioned you in this thing; can you read it, and let me know if you’re OK with it?”

Usually they are. I think the experience of being asked — of being invited into what is being communicated — makes people excited to be a part of the process.

The essay I wrote for the Winter 2015 issue of 1966 — “Aftermath” — tells the story of the six weeks following a murder-suicide in my condo building. Most of the essay is about my search for the dog who lived in the condo, about my own personal struggle to make peace with the situation by locating the animal.

But the essay also details my own struggle to connect with someone who might also acknowledge the awfulness of the situation. Everyone — the police, the pound, the animal hospital, even my best friend at the time — seemed to be saying, “Get over this. Move on.”

Writing about the incident begged a question: do I mention this best friend of mine? Do I tell this story even if it includes unflattering images of her? Does a reader need to know the things she said in order to understand how desperate I was for someone around me to recognize the terrible, awful truth of what happened in my neighbor’s condo that day?

Ultimately I decided that what was being communicated — my own desperation to find someone to grieve with — required some vague details about this very real person in my life.

And, as the essay implies, my friend and I don’t talk anymore, so I didn’t ask for her permission. I have no idea if she ever read the essay, if she cares that I wrote it or if she even knows that it’s about her.

But what I’ve learned about navigating the pitfalls of writing about other people is that before I decide whether or not to write about a friend, a family member, or someone who cut me off in traffic, I first have to ask myself, “What can writing about this accomplish? Is it just meant to help me get something off my chest? Or is it meant to open a dialogue about something important?”

I can probably survive without telling the world about the things my friends do that annoy me. I don’t think I can survive without finding a way to discuss the terrible, amazing, exhausting, surprising world in which I live.

So if you’re out there, and I’ve written something about you that I shouldn’t have, I’m sorry. Let’s talk about it. You can even write something about me if you want to.

But let’s agree that we’ll write about each other with the doors and windows open, that we’ll only do it if it continues a conversation, if it investigates who we are and how we can be better.

We’ll only write about each other if our writing and our hearts and our lives will be better because we did.

*

Sarah Carson was born and raised in Michigan but now lives in Chicago. She is the author of three chapbooks and two full-length collections: Poems in which You Die (BatCat Press, 2014) and Buick City (Mayapple Press, 2015). Sometimes she blogs at sarahmycarson.com.

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