The perils of “writing what you know”

A young mother sat next to me on her couch, avoiding the subject of her son, his surgery, and her fears. She stared at my head, not avoiding my eyes but mostly looking at my skull, until finally she said, “Your head looks normal.”

I’d just begun conducting interviews for a research-driven manuscript about craniosynostosis, the premature ossification of the skull sutures in newborns. I was born with this birth defect, and it has shaped both my personality and my relationship with my own mother, a woman who will not talk about my surgery in 1976—a surgery from which babies often died, at the time, because of blood loss or the slip of a saw blade.

Without asking, the young mother leaned over and ran her fingers across my scalp and cranial scar. A moment later, she wrangled in her two-year-old son and spread the hair above his ear, revealing a fresh, pink scar that zigzagged from the fleshy skin beneath the top of his ear to his posterior fontanel. Then she let him go and asked me, “How has this affected you?”

“Just my vanity, really.” I rubbed my fingers across my balding scalp and dreaded the day all the hair would be gone, revealing my scarred and misshapen head. “I don’t remember any of it, just like your son won’t.” I paused to decide whether I should reveal any more about myself. After all, I was meant to be interviewing her, not the other way around, and I worried about how my story might influence hers. I decided to let her see my deep-rooted motivation for this book that I have always felt I needed to write: “My mom, however, remembers it all. It’s because of her pain that I am writing this book.”

The wall fell. The young mother sat back and began to talk. Her words explored the first sight of her son’s dented skull, the anger she had at the nurse practitioner who first suggested he had craniosynostosis, and her dark thoughts about having another baby to replace her son if he didn’t make it through.

As creative nonfiction writers, we have a difficult task: We walk into the homes of people who have deep, emotional, and many times even physical scars, and we ask them to dig metaphorical fingernails into the ends of those scars and tear them open centimeter by painful centimeter. We do this to build characters and landscape, to recreate dramatic dialogue, and to construct narrative arcs from our interviewees’ lives. Without their willingness to open up and tell their stories, we would be left with thin plotlines and no development.

In “Only Human: A Reflection on the Ethical and Methodological Challenges of Working with ‘Difficult’ Stories” (Oral History Review, 2010), Anna Sheftel and Stacey Zembrzycki discuss creating willingness (in this case, among Holocaust survivors) to share their stories: “We walk into this space unsure of what will transpire, both in terms of the research that we will undertake and the interpersonal dynamics that we will find ourselves negotiating. … [W]ill we sit awkwardly, unable to relate to each other and posing robotic questions that are met with curt responses? … Or will the relationship take time, as we attempt to prove ourselves trustworthy, and the interviewee decides how deep they may want to go?” Every nonfiction writer who is immersed in interviews faces these challenges. In my situation, as for many authors, a shared passion or culture can help to break down those walls. But is it fair to use these shared connections?

Christopher Cokinos, author of Hope is the Thing With Feathers and The Fallen Sky (Tarcher/Penguin 2001 and 2009) and frequent contributor to the LA Times, describes the need to marry process, passion, and fairness in writing research-driven nonfiction and creating a willingness by the interviewee to share honestly:

To paraphrase Robert Frost: no passion for the writer, no passion for the reader. It’s taken me eighteen years to write two books of research-driven narrative nonfiction, one on extinct birds and another on meteorites—well, on obsession, really. I had to care deeply for the subjects to spend that much time with them. It’s a form of doing honor to the subject and, by extension, doing honor to those who are immersed in it as well, whether they’re scientists or birders or historians. I want them to see that I’ve done my homework, that I’ve been living the subject. If someone sees that—and if it’s clear that you’re fair—then that creates a positive ethos, absolutely. The fair part is important. And just because you have that deep connection doesn’t mean you accept easy answers. You have to dig into an interview when someone is dancing around a question. Passion doesn’t mean you’re unfair and it doesn’t mean you’re compromising your ability to do hard reporting. It means you care enough to do it all.

Others might say, however, that the interviewer’s passion can lead to bias, either on the part of the interviewer, who might inadvertently lead the interviewee with his or her own emotional connection, or on the part of the interviewee, who might try to feed the interviewer the answers he or she wants, hoping to create the best story—not always the true story.

Author Mike Magnuson, who is currently working on a nonfiction book about the human cost of generations of political struggle in Wisconsin, describes the need for diving in head first without the worry of tempering passion:

If you don’t have a deep connection with a person you’re interviewing for a piece and for the subject matter of a piece, you need to develop one in a hurry. Without passion, without intensity, without putting everything on the line, every time, you will never make art. Art is key to the process, and the best thing about this, really, is that if we do happen to interview somebody famous, someone we have admired for a long time, we are under no obligation to be objective. Why would we be? We’re making art, and we’re using art to prove a point in an essay. I don’t know about you, but I’m not keeping my emotions away from all that. 

I’m with Cokinos, with Magnuson, and with Frost—aiming to be fair and passionate, not keeping my emotions away from it all, but respecting the unique relationship I will have with my subjects, and not exploiting it.

About the Author

Kase Johnstun

Kase Johnstun (MA, MFA) lives and writes in Ogden, Utah. He is the author of Beyond the Grip Craniosynostosis (McFarland & Co), which has been featured in Pennsylvania Parenting Magazine, Portland Family Magazine, The Ogden Standard Examiner, and many other places, as well as having mentions in the Chicago Tribune and the Seattle Times.

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