Kaylene Johnson’s “Peering at Privacy in Creative Nonfiction” provides thoughtful fodder for us writers of memoir, essays, CNF. It’s a critical, intellectual though not academic consideration of what to include and what to exclude in these very personal pieces we write. Some people, upon hearing this, may think it obvious. Others might absorb every word of it like a stray cat at a tin of tuna. Me? Her essay gave me cause to think of various ways privacy has affected the essays I’ve already published, though didn’t really compel me to contemplate my future writing. Warning to tender writers: Johnson’s essay could very well scare you into second guessing yourself.
Let me explain.
“For the creative nonfiction writer, perhaps no decision is more pressing than what to reveal and what to leave unsaid,” Johnson writes in The Writer’s Chronicle, the monthly magazine of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. “Exposing one’s self invariably involves revealing the lives of others; one’s story is inextricably linked to the stories of other people.”
For me, an essay is a nonfiction, factual, non-mystical, non-sappy attempt to take readers on a journey. My preference is to incorporate elements of fiction so that it strings the reader along and doesn’t focus on me, the writer, but the concept or experience I’m sharing. The essay or memoir isn’t about me, per se, even if it is occasionally in first person. What’s important is the dialectic the piece elicits.
One writer, Johnson claims, “asks friends, both before writing about them and before sending the essays to publishers, for their permission. In some cases friends said yes to begin with but later decided to remain anonymous.” Really? This isn’t journalism or a biography. I’m an essayist, who, like Joan Didion or David Foster Wallace, turns common icons on their side, attempting to understand them from a different angle. I do not think believe in the necessity of asking permission from everyone who might make an appearance in my essays. That’s not to say that I condone libeling anyone or even making them simply feel uncomfortable. It will happen, though.
On the other hand, but not necessarily conversely, the need for fictional techniques and clever writing does sometimes arise. For instance, in the first essay I published, “In a Sentimental Mood”, the subject of my essay was jazz. I’d just witnessed renowned jazz bassist Ray Brown’s penultimate performance, and consequently had an epiphany about the music. One person helped me see the world of jazz backstage and on tour. That person I did protect. He was sensitive and didn’t know what the ramifications could be if I used his name. I therefore avoided it. His name wasn’t an imperative piece of information because the story wasn’t about him. He was easy to disguise as a deus ex machina, the gasoline in my vehicle tour through jazz. He read the piece during its composition and upon publication. He appreciated my sensitivity to his needs and was happy with the outcome; though had he not wanted me to write about him, he’d have to be written quite differently. Rest assured, however, he would have been in the essay.
As essayists, memoirists, CNF writers, we have the options to include fictional techniques that help us get avert certain problems.
“In these cases, (the writer), like many authors facing the same dilemma, used literary techniques to protect people’s privacy. He changed the details or used composite characters to conceal their identities,” Johnson writes.
More on privacy in CNF later.