New Essay

Writing true stories that reflect what you think and see and remember can be rife with personal hazards.

“When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.” —Czeslaw Milosz

I am hoping that readers who discover they are characters in these essays in this “Lost Truths and Family Legends” issue will write and tell me if the stories are true—or, at least, accurate, which can (it’s worth remembering) be different than “true.” Or are they exaggerated or totally out of whack—figments of the writers’ imaginations? And if the latter is the case, maybe the other characters will tell me what really happened!

For example, I wonder how the other characters in Fritz Swanson’s “The Hart’s Long Life” would tell this story about the author hitting a deer on a country road in the middle of a conversation (or was it an argument?) with his wife. Surely Swanson’s brother-in-law—who, unlike the author, is actually a hunter and seems to have an intuitive grasp of what Swanson calls “this guy thing”—would have a different perspective. And the cop who answers the call to find Swanson scanning the side of the road, using an iPod as a flashlight to examine “his” deer. . . .You can only imagine how he described that scene, back at the station.

How does Michelle Herman’s mother feel about her daughter’s description of her apartment? We see piles of old junk mail and closets overflowing with boxes of old telephones, and the mother herself is so overcome with grief at her husband’s death that a burnt-out light bulb brings her to tears. Imagine how she, or Herman’s teenage daughter, might frame that story differently.

And I can’t help but feel some empathy for Derek Hinckley’s father, portrayed by his son as “solidly middle-aged and comfortable in a deep rut” and described most vividly in a scene in which he rests a “glass of fruit punch atop his potbelly.” To be sure, he has stories of youthful daring, but it’s hard to know whether to believe them. There’s another narrative angle to this story, by the way, about a famous serial killer: Hinckley’s father might have been an intended victim—or so he claims.

I don’t mean to get our writers in hot water with their families, but the truth is they may have already done that themselves. Writing true stories that reflect what you think and see and remember can be rife with personal hazards. By that, I mean you can annoy people, even make them angry—sometimes even angry enough to come after you.

For example, back in the 1970s, I wrote a book about National League Baseball umpires. For months after the book was published, one of the umps, who took issue with the way I’d portrayed him, regularly called my mother—my mother!—in the middle of the night, after drinking too many beers, to lambast her about her motherfucking lying hypocrite of a son. At the time, my mother was surprised and, of course, appalled by the umpire’s vulgarity, but she always knew that her beloved son, the writer, had done the right thing, told the absolute truth about the umpires, and she would have defended me to her death—until, of course, I began writing about her and my dad.

Writing true stories about family goes beyond the normal complications of writing creative nonfiction, because you are digging deep into your own roots and personal foundations. Once you begin to do this, you are relinquishing, to a certain extent, whether deliberately or not, the safety and security of your house and home and family. Your parents, spouse, siblings, cousins, and everyone else may continue to comfort and love you, but they will probably never again trust you completely. They will always wonder what you are going to write about them next.

Of course, the other side of the equation is that they might also treat you with a bit more care and respect because of the power of your pen. So, it’s not all bad.

I never got along with my father—and I did not write about him in a particularly favorable way—but he was uncharacteristically accepting after reading my first memoir, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather. All he ever said to me about my portrait of him was, quite simply, “You’ve got your story about what happened, and I’ve got mine.” This didn’t worry me, of course, because for one thing, even if that remark was a veiled threat, I knew he wouldn’t write his own book, and besides, there was nothing bad about me that he could reveal. I was the perfect son. If you don’t believe me, just ask my mother. . . . Or wait: since my mother read what I wrote about her in two memoirs, maybe I lost my best defender. My brothers, too, have also come to regard me with great wariness and perhaps a bit of hostility. But that’s how it is when you’re a writer.

By the way, the memoir or first-person story will be the focus of Creative Nonfiction’s annual writers’ conference in Pittsburgh, held over Memorial Day weekend. I will be on the scene to discuss writing true stories in the first person, as will Dinty W. Moore, the award-winning memoirist and editor of Brevity, as well as editors from many publications that feature excellent first-person stories, including Slate, the Washington Post’s PostEverything site, and Buzzfeed, among others. These editors, along with other panelists and presenters, will help you write and sell the true stories that may get you in trouble with your family. But then, your loved ones could always write their own stories. After all, you have nothing to hide—right?

About the Author

Screen Shot 2011-11-18 at 3
Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.

View Essays