Saturday, April 21, 2012

Writing Dilemma

As a fiction writer, I have the infinite pleasure of dreaming up stories. Anything goes with fiction. But what about memoir?

A year ago I started writing personal essays. It all began when Benjy was seriously in decline, and the writing was more therapeutic than anything. But after six months I ended up with an amazing piece, so I changed all the names (to the ones you see on this blog) and sent it off. I decided to eschew my usual publishing haunts (literary journals) and try for a glossy magazine. I chose O Magazine and the editor there loved it, but alas, they do not publish much in the way of parenting pieces, so they passed.

So I decided to send it to The Sun, a gorgeous, New Yorker-esque literary magazine where it now awaits a decision. In the meantime, I wrote an essay about my relationship with my deceased sister, and a short (800-word) essay about parenting Benjy -- an up-beat one, but it does refer to his mental health issues and my concerns about his functioning in later life. This time I used his real name.

My dilemma, which is any personal essay writer's dilemma, is how do I deal with the fallout when I reveal things about others that could be hurtful, now or later? That was the reason I decided to blog pseudonymously, and to change all the names in my long essay about parenting a child who wants to die (although I have not changed my own name in that one). All of the essays I've written in the past year reveal things about me AND the other person that that person might not like -- all true things, but still.

In Benjy's case, he knows I write about him but he has never read anything I've written. He owns his Asperger's and his mental health issues -- he is not ashamed of them,  and he himself sometimes brings them up with others, even other kids.

But what if he reads one of my essays in print when he's sixteen, seventeen, and doesn't like what he sees? Do I have the right to publish this stuff, to think about myself -- for once! -- and consult my own desires? Because this is stuff I want to write, and I think people would want to read. Lots of people struggle with one thing or another -- most of us do -- and reading how someone else has dealt with their challenges helps us. I know it helps me.

What I do know is that I'm going to keep writing memoir. I love it, and I think I have something of value to contribute. The question for me is, do I change the names of others -- and if so, do I have to write under a pseudonym, or is changing their names enough? I don't want to hurt Ben, or anyone I love (or even just like), so I'll have to figure this out.

And that's what I'm working on this morning with my cup of coffee and a warm hound by my side.


  1. I think you answered your own question about using Benjy's name. He isn't likely to be ashamed or upset by your account. He knows his strengths and his challenges. I'd open it up in discussion with his therapist. As you know, I'm in the same place and choose to use A's name. But, he's not bothered by it and likely doesn't have the cognitive abilities to judge it either way.

    1. Thanks, Laurel. You're right, and I will bring it up with the therapist. I know you use A's name, in a loving but candid way, and I think that's great.

  2. My reaction as a non-writer is to question whether it's even possible to write autobiographically without running the risk of offending someone at some time. Isn't that risk what makes memoirs interesting, informative and worth reading?

    RE: "What if..." Benjy reads it in several years (or not), doesn't like it (or does, or doesn't care), it seems to me that there's just so much that you can second-guess what might (or not) happen. For now, you've said he's pretty together.

    So what's right for you? now?
    Whichever you chose will be right.

    1. Always so wise you are, Papa! (How's that for tortured syntax?) I think what's right for me is to write under my own name, at least, and maybe if it's detailed stuff that Benjy might not want a future date or boss to read, to not use his real name. You just gave me permission to do what feels right to me, so thanks (your opinion holds A LOT of weight with me!). xo