Friendly Fire – Melbourne Writers’ Festival 2012

“To be of interest to me, people have to expose themselves.”

This is what Marieke Hardy, author of the collection of autobiographical stories You’ll Miss Me When I’m Dead, said last Saturday at Friendly Fire, a Melbourne Writers’ Festival event. She was of course talking about memoir and about how much of the personal lives of yourself and others you can safely reveal.

This is something I’m very concerned about at the moment. I would never want to hurt anyone I know by writing about something they consider to be private, but it’s very difficult to tell my own story without reference to the stories of those round about me. I used to be very cautious about writing about others, but gradually I’m casting off my inhibitions in favour of telling the truth. Although this is difficult for me, I can see that revealing more of my thoughts and feelings about the people and events in my life makes my writing more interesting. And ultimately I think I am exposing only myself, my own flaws and weaknesses.

Nevertheless I am constantly worried about offending people, especially when I write about humorous situations. I’d hate for the people I’ve written about to think I’m making fun when the reality is that I have the utmost respect for them.

There’s no doubt that relationships can be destroyed through memoir writing. Another speaker at the event, Sloane Crosely, revealed that she had been uninvited from a wedding following something she had written in one of her books of personal essays. She admitted to exaggerating the characters a little since she was writing about them in the context of being suspected of having shat on her bathroom floor during a party.

She wouldn’t go back and change what she’d written though, stressing that “anything that happened to you, that’s true and strikes you as important” has a place in memoir.

Benjamin Law added that “Writing memoir it’s not a journalistic act. Memoir is your take on things and it’s not about getting everything right on everyone.” He gave the example of recreating dialogue when writing about events from his childhood in his book The Family Law. Of course it’s not possible to remember anyone’s exact words. The goal is to “get to some sort of emotional truth.”

Before publishing his book however, he gave his family copies of the manuscript to read and check if their memories roughly matched up with his. Hardy included in her book letters and e-mails written in response to her stories by some of the people featured.

Would I be brave enough to show people what I’d written about them if they’d come off a bit negatively? Probably not. At least, not at the moment, which makes me ask myself, do I have any business writing about these people if I’m not brave enough to show them?

Hardy’s advice was not worry about this until the editing stage. “I don’t know if I want to write thinking I don’t know if this should be there. It puts a bracket round your writing which I don’t think should be there.”

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4 thoughts on “Friendly Fire – Melbourne Writers’ Festival 2012

  1. I’ve written about true events and real people in poetry and I wouldn’t go back and change it, despite having offended some people. Who was it who said (Philip Pullman?) “I have the write to offend you and you have the right to be offended but you do not have to read what I write” – paraphrasing wildly but that was the drift of it. I think, if no one is offended by your writing, you’re not hitting any emotional truths, and good writing is about those truths.

    • Interesting…if only there was some way to get to the emotional truth without offending any one. It would make my life much easier.

  2. I incorporated a moment of real dialogue and basically a fictionalized version of my idiot ex-brother-in-law into my MS, sort of a wish fulfillment moment, but in the end realized it wasn’t going to serve the story.

    • Did you have a piano fall on his head? 😉 I think you’re right that you always have to question if what you’ve written serves the story. Sometimes that can be difficult to spot yourself though. That’s when you need a good friend to give you feedback.

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