On upsetting people

A sister rang to complain, I’d written a piece on my blog in which I’d used the names of living people.

I told her I had invented these names, but given it was a piece of memoir, why didn’t I explain I had made them up? she asked.

And can she trust me not to violate her privacy by using her name in any of my writing?

It’s thorny territory and I’ve been here so many times before, you’d think I’d get used to it. This ghastly position of knowing I upset people with my writing.

Not intentionally.

I make up names all over the place and do so out of respect for people’s privacy but also in order not to appropriate someone else’s identity.

People still feel betrayed.

As Helen Garner argues: ‘Writing …  like the bringing up of children, can’t be done without causing damage’.

Like most people, I prefer to be liked. I do not relish the rancour of people towards me, especially those who matter, my friends and family.

Nor do I enjoy the sense I get from time to time that I must choose: either my writing or my relationships.

Is it okay for me to put my writing out there given it might upset others because they feel I have misrepresented them or their story, even as I’m doing my best to tell my own?

‘You can’t write things without the people you write about feeling betrayed,’ the journalist Margaret Simons says following a conversation with Helen Garner.

So why does it make us flinch to be written about?

According to Garner, ‘it’s not so much the revelation of fact, as the feeling that somebody else is telling your story, and stating something without the justifying tone that you use yourself…You feel stripped and bare and you can’t say “Oh well that’s just me,” in that cosy way that one does.’

When someone writes about you, they use their own words, their own impressions. They look at you from the outside, whereas you can only see yourself from the inside. You can only imagine how you might come across.

In a recent radio interview with Philip Adams, Helen Garner challenged the idea that writers have no right to tell other people’s stories.

‘Who owns the stories anyhow?’ she asks. ‘Stories are not just bits of stuff we pick up on the street and can possess.’

Stories float around and are there for everyone.

Everyone and anyone is free to pick up these stories and make of them as they will.

That’s what writers do, they gather together the impressions that come to them as they write and try to shape them into a coherent narrative.

Whether it comes under the rubric of fiction or memoir, it’s still an effort to shape a story that resonates for the writer and hopefully will also resonate with readers who will likely experience the story differently from the way the writer first envisaged it.

I have written a memoir about aspects of my childhood. It’s been a long time in the making. It has undergone many transformations, but in the process I hope I have distilled something of the essence of what it was like for me as a child growing up in my particular family.

I write about my experience from my perception knowing full well that the way I see the world will be different from the way my siblings may have experienced events.

They will see the past from their vantage point, and that’s fine.

We all have the right to tackle our stories in our own way, without breaching one another’s right to privacy. Hence my use of fictional names.

I write to convey something of the emotional truthfulness of my life growing up during the fifties, sixties and early seventies in Melbourne, Australia, not as a statement of facts, but as a story.

I’m writing in an effort to explore what it was like for me as a small child, an adolescent and as a young woman in the flush of first loves.

I hope people can read my work with an open mind, and not get stuck in merely trying to establish facts.

Facts matter when we’re talking about concrete events and people and places. But when we tell stories, although the factual skeleton might need to be firm, the flesh around those facts will be different depending on who tells the story.

This is my version. And it’s only one version. There are likely to be many others. But I expect only a few will get written.

Some might be passed on by word of mouth; others might be transformed into visual art, into music or any other form that can convey something of the story.

Not one of us holds a monopoly.

2 thoughts on “On upsetting people”

  1. There was a fire in London yesterday and as is the way of it nowadays people who’d witnessed the events were asked to tell their stories. No one bats an eye at that. We understand 24-hour news programmes have to fill their time with something and there’re only so many “facts” to go round. And “facts” mostly are boring. But personal responses hold our interest: I was there; I saw; I heard; I felt. They’re our proxies and most of us are glad we weren’t there. Are all those witness testimonies accurate? Have they been fact-checked? There’s no time for any of that. These are immediate and raw responses. Considered ones, cleverer ones will comes later that won’t invalidate those original statements but they might provide some context.

    Where were you when Kennedy was shot or the planes crashed into the two towers? I can answer the second one—I was in our flat in Broomhill working on the novel I sent you a few weeks back—but I’ve no idea about the Kennedy assassination since I was only four although I vaguely remember watching the first episode of ‘Doctor Who’ the day after. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it, as they say. We all have stories; we’re all six or fewer steps away from each other.

    Just as there’s no single truth there’s also no one story that encompasses everything, that puts everything in perspective. Of course we often feel that our story is the definitive one and I’m often surprised when I hear people provide alternative perspectives on events I was involved in. I don’t immediately jump on them and assume they’re wrong. It’s usually the opposite in fact. I’m usually disturbed by how much of me others have seen that I thought was hidden; I have my head in the sand far more than I realise.

    I watched a programme a couple of weeks back—‘What Do Artists Do All Day?’—and this episode featured the photographer Dougie Wallace whose method of street photography is, to put it mildly, in your face: he literally walks up to people, sticks a camera in their face (mere inches from said face in some cases) and snaps away. And he gets away with it because simply photographing a person in public view—including children and law enforcement officials—does not require either a model release or expressed consent and you are allowed to display and even sell the images you’ve taken where they will be pored over and judged. If he was a writer rather than a photographer and gave a detailed description of the individual and his impressions of him or her would it be any different?

    Like you I never talk in detail about any of my close relatives online. I’ve never once mentioned my daughter, my sister or my brother by name and you would be hard-pressed to find the few passing comments I have made. That doesn’t mean I won’t ever talk about them but unlike you I’m not interested in mining my past in a direct and obvious way. My brother gets a nod, for example, in ‘The More Things Change’. The story about Jim climbing up a gate wasn’t me. It was my brother. He fell off the gate the factory at the end of our street, had his leg fixed in plaster and was back in A&E the next night having fallen off the same gate. Typical of my brother if you’d know him then. Have I the right to tell the story? I was there. I was there every bit as much as the men and women who stood watching the Grenfell Tower burn.

  2. My memory of the day John Kennedy was assassination I locate in place. I was walking along Canterbury Road after visiting two friends from school. Two scottish friends, Janis and Lesley, whose parents spoke in a rich brogue that appealed to me enormously, especially in words like ‘bussing it’ instead of ‘taking the bus’ and in ‘knickers’ and that wonderful word for small, ‘wee’. I loved to hear them speak. Somehow these two girls and that point on Canterbury Road where they lived in a small half house that’s still there over the road from the park where we played, stays with me, in line with my scant knowledge of the assassination. and later watching the news and my mother’s tears. The same tears she shed when the archbishop died. I found it hard to understand that my mother could become so distressed about a public figure like the American president who was so far from home and then not shed a tear when she talked about her own first born dead baby. I enjoy playing around with memory and even while I’m remembering I can see the way events concertina on one another and things shift and sway with each re-telling. So you’re right, facts are slippery beats and as much as we might need them on the news, the personal slant is what intrigues us, those wonderful eye witness accounts that bring colour to the bald facts. Thanks, Jim.

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