ABCs of Creative Nonfiction: R is for Respect

Posted by on Jul 23, 2016 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

13730685_10157086356000212_1197184080_oEarly on in her canonical craft book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott notes, “[Good] writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are […] Just put down on paper everything you can remember now about your parents and siblings and relatives and neighbors, and we will deal with libel later on” (3,4). While Bird by Bird is rife with humorous asides about both life and the writing process, Lamott touches on an important aspect of the craft without writing the word: respect. When it comes to creative nonfiction, respect—both for one’s self and the accurate reporting of past events—is one of the most important aspects in the writing and editing processes, especially when writing about the following types of creative nonfiction: a controversial topic dealing with a living person or persons; a controversial topic dealing with a deceased subject or subjects; and when the events of the piece are so uncommon and outside the realm of normalcy that the piece could be accused of being sensational.

That’s not to say the “respect” aspect of the craft doesn’t come with a Catch-22 caveat; during the writing process, having too much respect for oneself, the subject(s), place, or time will yield writing that doesn’t accurately capture the writer’s unabridged feelings on the matter. Not enough respect—essentially, focusing too much on the actual language, dialogue, imagery, etc. of your piece and treating the subject(s) with secondary importance—will yield a similarly inaccurate piece. The same can be said about writing that is altered too much or too little (in the name of respect) in the editorial process.

So where do we draw the line without, as Lamott joked, worrying about being sued? How can we satisfy our artistic urge to create without sacrificing truthfulness? How do we, as both writers and human beings, turn a painful, unorthodox past or upbringing into a work of art?  And more importantly…does having respect for the truth matter as much or more than the actual quality of writing?

To examine this question, we’ll look at three harrowing memoirs, all published since 2005: With or Without You by Domenica Ruta, Tiger, Tiger by Margaux Fragoso, and The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls. These memoirs all deal with controversial/unorthodox events and situations: With or Without You deals with Ruta’s shocking upbringing (her mother, a subject receiving a great deal of on-page time, is still living), Tiger, Tiger deals with Fragoso’s fifteen-year pedophilic relationship with a man forty-four years her senior (deceased before Fragoso even started writing the memoir) as well as her mother’s bouts of mental illness, and The Glass Castle delves into Walls’ outlandish, poverty-stricken, peripatetic childhood that, at times, nearly defies belief. While all vastly different from each of the other, all three books came to be because of the tremendous amount of respect the authors had for themselves and to get the story down as truthfully as possible.

With or Without You, by Domenica Ruta, chronicles Domenica’s conflicted childhood with her mother Kathi, a notorious, five-foot-tall, single mother/drug addict (“and sometimes dealer whose life swung between welfare to riches” according to the back cover copy) from Danvers, MA who is smashing the window of her brother’s ex-girlfriend’s car due to their family’s unspoken code of honor at the beginning of Ruta’s memoir. “[My mother] believed it was more important to be an interesting person than it was to be a good one; [she] made me responsible for most of my own meals when I was seven and all the laundry in the house when I was nine. [She] loved me so much she couldn’t help hating me [and] at least once a week I still dream she’s trying to kill me” (5). Much of With or Without You deals with a childhood that nearly no reader can imagine: the dilapidated Ruta household is filled with garbage, booze, narcotics, and strangers filing in and out for days on end. However, Kathi might not have been able to make her daughter food or do the laundry, but she was never unable to make money—she just had habits that made keeping the money difficult. Domenica didn’t shy away from any of the details in writing With or Without You when it would’ve been very easy to, given her mother still being alive. What makes With or Without You so enticing is that, even as a child Domenica knows how toxic, hapless, destructive and selfish her mother was…and yet she couldn’t help but constantly seek her mother’s approval. The following passage is from when Domenica is watching her mother smash her brother’s ex-girlfriend’s car windshield:

My body leaned toward hers like a plant stretching in the direction of the sunniest window in the room. I prayed with each strike that we would finally hear it—the lovely, delicate rainfall of something whole now in pieces. My mother beat that woman’s windshield with everything she had, but it would not shatter. Eventually she gave up. We got back into the car and drove home in silence, both of us longing for the sound of breaking glass. (6)

Kathi often shared her drugs and alcohol with Domenica, which eventually led to Domenica’s alcoholism. She only started writing With or Without You after she’d achieved two years of sobriety. So while a great deal of the memoir’s events occurred under the foggy haze of addiction (Ruta herself admits she’s not the most reliable narrator) the entirety of the book was written after Ruta had been on her road to recovery. She could’ve easily softened the blow of her assertions against her mother (as a great deal of the recovery process deals with forgiveness) and changed details to lighten things up. Instead, she accepts her childhood, endless string of teenaged hangovers, withdrawals and all. While Ruta eventually turned out okay on paper—a Bachelor’s from Oberlin College and an MFA from Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin is nothing to sneeze at—she admits that recovery and moving on from the tyranny of her mother is still an everyday process. With or Without You is Ruta’s attempt at closure:

Not long before I changed my number and silenced [my mother] for good, [she] left me a voice mail that was stranger than any other […] “I don’t know why you won’t talk to me, Nikki,” she said. Maybe you’re writing a book about me, that’s why. Well, good luck.” I deleted the message, stomped my foot in a childish rage […] “I would never write about you,” I whispered, as though, two thousand miles away, she might hear me. […] In movies, transformations […] happen in a mechanical blink of an eye. Gaping flesh wounds are healed in the space of a song. […] It sounds lovely and sometimes it’s even true, but not for us. My family does not magically repair itself. […] My mother does not get sober. From what I hear, her hair has turned completely white and she relies on a portable oxygen tank to breathe. Just a few miles away from where we used to live, she is gasping her way through another twenty-four hours. While a few things change, much remains the same. I used to be a miserable, spiritless, insecure egomaniac who smelled like whiskey. Now I am a well-intentioned, sometimes volatile, even more insecure egomaniac who smells like coffee. My friends in the recovery movement tell me that’s just fine for now. (205-206)

Tiger, Tiger by Margaux Fragoso was met with outrage and fascinated adulation alike upon its publication in 2011; regardless of where one’s opinion falls on the quality of Fragoso’s writing or the descriptions she chooses to delve into, the subject of her memoir is undeniably fascinating despite it being for a horrific, unspeakable reason. A decade-plus-long relationship with a man forty-four years older than Fragoso at first meeting is simply not a situation that occurs readily (and thank goodness for that), especially considering that Fragoso’s own mother and aunt were sexually abused as well; while her family’s previous abuse may have allowed Fragoso to be abused herself, the reason she penned the memoir—again, only after her abuser’s death, and because of his urging of her to write about their relationship in a slew of suicide letters—was to help families recognize trouble before it starts: “By setting down my memories in this book, I’ve worked to break the old, deeply rooted patterns of suffering and abuse that have dogged my family through the generations […] Silence and denial are exactly the forces that all pedophiles rely on so their true motives can remain hidden […] I make up [bedtime] stories for my daughter just as my father did for me when I was her age. Some family traditions I keep; others must end with me” (318-320). Fragoso often discusses that some families and/or victims do their best to forget what’s happened to them, but Fragoso cannot—this relationship shaped her in ways nothing else could:

My next insight, though, wasn’t gleaned from a book, but I pretended it was: “I also read that spending time with a pedophile can be like a drug high. There was this girl who said it’s as if the pedophile lives in a fantastic kind of reality, and that fantasticness infects everything. Kind of like they’re children themselves, only full of the knowledge that children don’t have […] They can make the child’s world…ecstatic somehow. And when it’s over, for people who’ve been through this, it’s like coming off heroin and, for years, they can’t stop chasing the ghost of how it felt. One girl said that it’s like the earth is scorched and the grass won’t grow back. And the ground looks black and barren but inside it’s still burning.” (5)

Fragoso’s mother (who, as previously mentioned, was abused herself) suffered from crippling mental illness and her father was a verbally abusive drinker; in other words, Fragoso was a child starved for attention, and her abuser preyed on that desire. Respect—a word rarely used in a situation such as this—is what Fragoso has for the people she’s writing this for: victims, victims’ families, and for the families of potentially at-risk children. Most of all, Fragoso, after years of abuse, respects herself too much to remain quiet about the relationship, and she wants to prevent others from experiencing the horrors she did. Without respect, of varying kinds, Tiger, Tiger wouldn’t be the harrowing cautionary tale it is.

Only five pages into The Glass Castle, New York City journalist Jeanette Walls recalls seeing her homeless parents rummage through the dumpster and being too ashamed to say hello. “And what am I supposed to tell people about my parents?” she asks, meeting up with them at a Chinese restaurant later. “Just tell them the truth,” Walls’ mother says. “That’s simple enough.” Truth, from the get-go, is something the Walls are fond of. Even when Jeanette’s parents don’t have a home, they preach respecting the truth. While The Glass Castle is overflowing with seemingly tall tales of Walls’ family squatting their way across the country—often moving due to patriarch Rex’s alcoholism, inability to keep a steady job, prone to disappearing for days at a time, and paranoia about being followed by the government—as well as strong allusions to sexual abuse, Walls’ story is about more than closure; Walls’ personal story is one of triumph in the face of adversity. Jeanette Walls is motivated to break away from the forces who oppress her when the oppression and tumult is occurring—without judgment, unlike Fragoso and Ruta in their respective memoirs. The section in The Glass Castle where Walls leaves her West Virginia home for New York City with her brother is one of the more emotional portions of the novel:

Dad was lighting a cigarette. I waved, and he waved back. Then he shoved his hands in his pockets, the cigarette dangling from his mouth […] I wondered if he was remembering how he, too, had left Welch full of vinegar at age seventeen and just as convinced as I was now that he’d never return. I wondered if he was hoping that his favorite girl would come back, or if he was hoping that, unlike him, she would make it out for good. I reached into my pocket and touched [Dad’s] horn-handled jackknife, then waved again. Dad just stood there. He grew smaller and smaller, and then we turned a corner and he was gone. (241)

Walls’ respect for herself, both in the present time of the events and in her writing of the story, is so great that the truth is almost never questioned in the way other memoirs are. (Both Tiger, Tiger and With or Without You are, at times, hard to believe.) Walls’ honesty and truthfulness are never in question when it comes to The Glass Castle, however, but respect—both for oneself and the events in the work—is something that certainly all three writers have in common.

So why are we discussing respect? Does it matter? In Bird by Bird, Lamott writes, “For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die” (15). This sort of passion for the written word is not only moving, but vital for an author. Ruta, Fragoso, and Walls all embody respect, albeit in different ways, and have achieved notoriety and critical appraisal for that virtue.

In terms of creative nonfiction, respect for oneself at time of writing is an absolute necessity, because with respect comes truthful divulgence of one’s past. Without respect, readers are essentially taking a journey without a map in a sea of fog.

Dan Hajducky is a Senior Researcher at ESPN The Magazine. He has worked for WWE, Moffly Media, the New Haven Register and the Connecticut Post in the past. He is a graduate of Fairfield University’s MFA in Creative Writing program. His Twitter handle is @MrDuckus. Check out his website.

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