I’ve self-published a poetry chapbook, and a memoir before, and both taught me a lot about writing. If I were to choose which of the two processes had a larger impact on me though, it’d be the memoir. In fact there would be a lot less material for my current project without that book. (No spoilers!)
The takeaway was- it’s hard to do justice to other people in nonfiction unless they label themselves agreeably. Most people are extremely complex in their behaviour. When stripped, brain and bodily reactions to one another are based in logical motivations-and most of these motivating factors remain unseen.
The most outgoing person could be a horrible spouse in any number of ways that leave no signs. Or the loner with no social capital and even less concern for pop culture may have the brightest heart- either way how do you write about someone who only shows part of themselves?
Now if you’re thinking, “My experience is mine and it is valid, I have a right to express it to others.” That is true, but it isn’t always effective in getting what we want. If this person is a family member, neighbour, or co-worker, you will have to deal with them after the final words you’ve shared are read, they don’t necessarily make the subject change for the nicer, or go away, trust me.
But, our experiences are valid. So, I find myself trying to understand the perceptions of those I write about too. Even if I disagree with those perceptions. If something is said that felt mean or passive-aggressive, I define the experience and do what I can to own it, “I felt attacked/threatened/useless/offended etc…”
I try my best not to hide from my own mistakes, writing reflectively can make it easier to be more self-aware in the present and future as well. I’ve realized that when facing something that leaves me emotionally or physically uncomfortable in the immediate future, I get mean.
For example, In January when I was hospitalized and needed to drink a horrid cocktail, and a lot of it, for a procedure to follow a few days later, I wasn’t cooperative at first. I started shouting at my poor nurse about how much I hated the prep and procedure and that she dare not try that fake empath…I heard her say it was okay if I didn’t like her and yelled at her, and realized that it wasn’t okay at all. I apologized before my body could even completely calm itself.
If I hadn’t been self-aware about my own tendencies I would have remained stuck in my discomfort and the torturing memories of the other ten billion times I’ve been in the hospital. The story of that January stay would have become another misstep that I regret today. I make mistakes often, as do the subjects of our writing Because there is so much we don’t share in our world, no one can understand anyone else’s burdens fully. That isn’t an excuse for harms we’ve experienced or those we commit, it is a reason to try our best to grant people the grace, darkness, weirdness, potential, and kindness we all possess. Everyone is part of someone’s story.