Friday, September 9, 2011

On anniversaries.

(Query critique will have to be next week, guys; we had a power outage here yesterday for 12 hours and I'm scrambling to finish the most urgent tasks on my list before the weekend. Sorry for the delay!)

I've never said so in so many words on the blog, but I'm now an ex-New Yorker, having relocated to my home state of California over the summer. It feels especially strange, not "being there" this weekend, even though when I was there I usually just put my head down and tried not to think about it too much.

I'm not going to say much about the Big Anniversary that's coming up, in part because it's hard to imagine I could say anything here that would usefully contribute to the media glut that's been underway for what feels like ten years already. Suffice it to say, I have my own "where were you" story, just like everyone else, and just like everyone else, I have my own complicated relationship to the anniversary's observance.

This morning I was filling out a bio/questionnaire for a writer's conference I'll speak at this fall, and there was a section in this questionnaire for me to write down any special preferences I have. I never quite know what to write for that sort of thing: too vague and I come across as wishy-washy, too precise and I sound like a terrible curmudgeon. I successfully fought the urge to write "no [you-know-what] stories," but it got me thinking about who "owns" a given narrative, and why.

If it literally happened to you, of course you have the right to write about it. If your experience was featured in People Magazine, you'll probably get a book deal out of it, complete with possibly-optional ghost writer.

But what about the all the (in)famous Law & Order episodes "ripped from the headlines?" Why does true crime, or lightly fictionalized versions thereof, always feel so tawdry? Why is it even more grotesque when the writer tries to claim a tangential, minor, over-eager relationship to the events being described?

Who owns a story? How do you tell a story that you're not sure is yours to tell?


Elizabeth O. Dulemba said...

I think when the Muse wraps so tightly around your neck that you have no choice... it becomes your story to tell. Or at least your version. e

Jessica Brockmole said...

I think this is an excellent question and I'd even extend it to ask not just, "Who owns a story?" but, "Who has the right to tell a story?"

I won't argue that those who were part of an experience in some way bring more poignant emotion to the telling of that story. As a reader I appreciate that and welcome that. But as a writer, I do know that all of the emotion in the world means nothing if the person cannot translate it onto the page.

I hear this said a lot, the "write what you know and leave the rest for those who know it better". People saying that a certain writer is from the wrong gender/race/religion/cultural background/etc. to tell a story. And we've all seen authors successfully flout this.

For me, it's the universal story. Even though I've never been to wizardry school, I can appreciate a story about wizardry school that draws on basic human emotions and experience. And as a writer, I try to do the same. Whether or not I own the story through direct experience, I own *my* experience and use that to make the story as human and real as possible.

Unknown said...

When we are close to that moment, event, or circumstance, it makes it more emotionally charged. The same is true for the Holocaust, the Crusades, the Vietnam War, the war in Iraq, the tsunami in Japan or Katrina.

We are drawn to stories of humanity, where the struggle with forces out of our control are life-threatening, life-altering and make us reconsider our own lives. Fiction is escape, but often we find ourselves drawn to that which we would never consider, never wish on ourselves or never do.

Stories born from these disasters, wars, events often resonate with readers who were not part of it. It is understandable, though, when one who has lived through the event, or is close to someone whose life was lost in it is not supportive of the fictionalized account or even the media hype that surrounds it.

I had an uncle who was in the Korean War and he could not stand to watch M*A*S*H. Being close to an event of such magnitude would make a cynic of just about anyone. The same could be true about most Vietnam War movies or books about the Holocaust.

What is a great story to some who would be interested in reading about or watching an historical event may not be to those who experienced it first-hand. It is etched on their consciousness, seared in their soul. Another's viewpoint would be a spoilage, unworthy or simply in bad taste.