Writing About the Dead

One of the trickiest parts of writing memoir is, of course, writing about other people.  It’s one thing to tell your own story; it’s another to drag others into it. But, as anyone who’s written memoir knows, it’s impossible to tell your own story without casualties. All our stories are embedded. Our choices seem to boil down to: don’t write memoir, don’t give a damn, or write with as much integrity as humanly possible.  I like to think most writers aim for this last choice, knowing that we will fall short but choosing to err on the side of expression in the time-worn privacy vs. expression battle.

I always hold in the back of my mind that people about whom I’ve written have options for recourse (although I shudder to think of these people feeling the need for recourse); they can write their own book, they can yell at me, they can do other things that shall not be named (just as we don’t run around shouting “Voldemort”).  In the cases of people close to me, I’ve given them the opportunity to read their portrayals before publication. Some have declined that option. For others, I’ve changed details to further obscure their identity at their request. Sometimes, I’ve ignored a request.

But what about writing about those who are no longer here? I’ve heard writers say, “Well, after this person dies, I’ll be free to tell this story.” And I’ve nodded and thought that made sense at the time, and now I’m thinking: don’t be so sure.  In the memoir I’m writing now,  a number of the characters are based on people who’ve passed away, and while I’d thought I’d feel less obligation to portray them fairly and accurately, I’m actually feeling more responsibility than I do when writing about those who can say, “Uh-uh, that is NOT how that happened.”

I think part of my sense of increased responsibility is to the living who also hold memories of these people.  It’s not that I’m revealing any dark secrets and the stories I’m telling portray the characters in a neutral to positive light. But I’m adding to the public record of who these people were, and sometimes that seems like a lot of responsibility for one memory to carry.

Eight years ago, I had the luck to take a workshop from Frank McCourt.  Frank was a languid and accomplished storyteller who wasn’t afraid to take an hour of class time to tell a story or five. One of the stories that thrilled me the most was the story of how many years it took him to write Angela’s Ashes, how he’d tell himself every summer that this was the summer he’d write the book, and then he’d fritter another summer away, until finally the summer came when he had a friend’s borrowed beach house or cabin (memory fails) and he sat by the fire, writing longhand hour after hour the pages that would be come Angela’s Ashes .  If ever there were a story to give hope to a chronic procrastinator, this was it.

Memory tells me that someone in the class asked Frank if he thought there was another reason it took so long to get around to writing the book. Memory tells me that Frank said he thought that some part of him had been waiting for some people to pass away before he could tell their stories. That’s what memory tells me. I wish I could check with Frank.

About Theo Pauline Nestor

Author of Writing Is My Drink (Simon & Schuster) and How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed. Learn more about my courses, editing, and coaching at TheoNestor.com.
This entry was posted in Frank McCourt, More Stuff for Writers, Theo Finding Her Voice. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Writing About the Dead

  1. Jeanne Verville says:

    Thank you for the frank discussion. And I love the word “fritter.”

  2. I struggled for years to finish my memoir (which isn’t really finished, but that’s another story) and in particular, one story about my mother. It wasn’t until she passed away that I felt the story I wanted to tell was “finished” and that I could tackle my manuscript anew.

    Though death brings responsibility, it also brings perspective. Sometimes it’s a lot easier to understand people after they are gone and you are holding on only to their essence, not the extraneous stuff.

    Thanks for bringing up this important and often over-looked element of memoir writing.

  3. Theo Nestor says:

    I’m finding too that writing about people who’ve died keeps the relationship going, in a sense. I was particularly resistant to writing about my stepfather because I thought it would make me too sad. And at first it did make me feel the loss of him more acutely, but then as I wrote deeper into the story, it brought him back to me in a way.

  4. I think that we write what we believe people are and have been. Well, if we’re honest. Just don’t lie about them in making descriptions of a father, mother, relative, or friend and try to make them as real as you can. I mean, people are pretty doggoned weird! Isn’t that why we write about them? And sometimes weirder in our interpretations of them. Whether they are alive or dead seems to make little difference. But the dead can’t come back with a lawsuit or correction and I wonder if that fact means that we should keep it simple, out of some kind of respect. Maybe? McCourt was pretty flambouyant in his descriptions and I’ll be he would’ve angered a few people from Angela’s Ashes had they been alive. Ha, but they weren’t! They might be turning in their graves, but they’d be laughing as they turned!

    • Theo Nestor says:

      Mike, you used the Voldemort word. Shh. No say “lawsuit.” Reverse. Cancel. Abbra Kadabra. Repello Muggletum.

      Speaking of memoirs, do you have any announcements you’d like to make?

      I’m happy you’re reading my blog!

    • Theo Nestor says:

      Excellent news, Readers! A bird just told me that Mike Medberry just signed a book contract for his memoir The Dark Side of the Moon. Mike and I were in the MFA program at UW back in the day. I’m a fan of his work and look forward to reading this book. I’ll make an announcement on WIMD when the book is available for purchase.

  5. Thanks for addressing this topic, Theo – I was just thinking about this issue this month as I write about my brother.

  6. Theo Nestor says:

    I’m looking forward to seeing your essay about your brother in print (or online), Wendy.

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