So, how does that medicine taste?

A funny thing happened yesterday.  I read an essay in a magazine and came across a familiar character:  Me.

48_Cover_smallMy good friend, Tara DaPra, has a piece in the new issue of Creative Nonfiction titled “Writing Memoir and Writing for Therapy: An Inquiry on the Functions of Reflection.” I met Tara more than a decade ago, back when we were both undergrads at the University of Minnesota taking our first nonfiction writing classes, back when creative nonfiction was still a fairly new and terrifying genre, back when we were still trying to figure out if we had anything to say.  And even if we did, were we capable of writing it, and would anyone care to read it?

Because I write about my real life and my family, the question I get asked the most — aside from “aren’t you afraid you’ll get sued?” and “how would you feel if someone was writing about you!?” — is “do you find writing therapeutic?”  I always answer no.  No is simple.  I always answer no because I want to make it clear that I don’t feel like writing is anything at all like being in therapy, even though, even as I hear the emphatic “no” come out of my mouth, I know this can’t possibly be the whole truth.  How can writing, like any art, not be therapeutic?  In her essay, Tara explains this far better than I’ve been able to:  I agree that confession and redemption alone are no formula for good writing or art of any description, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t co-occur. And doesn’t a life have to be exposed—at least in part—before the writer can examine it? Why can’t a memoir speak about trauma or reveal family secrets and still be literary?

Head on over here to read the rest.

So yesterday, when I was reading Tara’s essay and thinking about how brilliant it was, how proud I was of her for having her work in this great magazine, right there alongside Mr. Creative Nonfiction, Lee Gutkind himself, I suddenly stumbled across some sticky words and saw myself as a character.  As in hey, is that me she’s describing, am I that person with no name?!  “How would you feel if someone was writing about you?”  I’m barely there, a mere cameo for a sentence or two, my young, 37 year old self.  But I’ll tell you, it felt …. well …. a little surreal.  A taste of my own medicine that was good for me to taste, and remember.

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16 thoughts on “So, how does that medicine taste?

  1. CJ Rice (@leapof)

    Whenever I hear someone say, ” a part of me thinks this but another part of me thinks that,” I get so nervous because a part of me is alway observing that other part of me jockeying for the telling POV.

  2. jennifersanford

    Obviously I have so much I could say here, considering my husband wrote a memoir that did quite well nationally. Some of my most personal moments were out there on bookshelves everywhere. I was involved in editing the book, which helped, but it was – and remains – surreal. Just yesterday I received an email from a friend of a friend who had read it and wanted to tell me how “amazing” I was – she has NEVER met me.

    These books live on and life goes on. Just last October (ironically on our anniversary), I received an email from someone in Ireland who wanted to tell me how our marriage was such an inspiration to her. I responded by thanking her for her kind words and for taking the time to read the book…but left out the part that we had, in fact, divorced.

    1. Teri Post author

      Jen, I can’t tell you the number of times I think about you when I’m wiriting. Matthew’s story doesn’t “make it” without you. I still remember the time before his book, when we all had wine on your porch and played games. A long long long time ago this seems.

  3. jpon

    Boy, that’s a tough one. Fiction writers often especially create characters from the people they encounter in their real lives. How would I feel if someone used me as a model? Guess it depends on the point they were trying to make, but still, I probably wouldn’t care too much for it.

    1. Teri

      I somehow think I’d rather be written about in a nonfiction account rather than fiction. How strange it would be to see bits and pieces of yourself and wonder why those particular things were used….

  4. Tara DaPra

    Hi Teri–Thanks so much for writing about this. I did feel weird having written about you and others when I knew people would actually be reading the essay. Kate and Mimi are in there even more substantially and I didn’t name them either, even though I described (more than one of) Mimi’s class in some detail. I didn’t want my questions or criticism to come across as directed at anyone in particular–it’s not–especially since these two have been important teachers for me. But my guess would be that when being written about, even in the most complimentary sense (or in your case, as a prop!?), it does feel like a small violation–like how some people describe a photograph as stealing the soul of its subjects. But what did Oscar Wilde say? “The worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

    1. Teri

      Ha! I loved seeing myself there as a prop —- but it certainly made me wonder what the “characters” in my memoir are going to think about being part of my story.

      As for Mimi, I swear I would never have written anything without her. She was there on 3 different occasions to say, “you need to write, why aren’t you writing!” I adore her.

    1. Josey

      Tara, I have been buying one-off of Creative NonFiction for way too long. Your essay was the straw that broke the subscription-decisions back. (Did that work? It sounded good in my head, but am not sure if it reads as clearly as I thought it.)

      Once, someone that read my diary threatened he was going to “…write his own book” about me. I still think often that I wish he would. “Please, PLEASE, write your own story, I’d love to see how you see me and this story working out in your favor.” (As if good stories take sides….)

      I’d like to think I would feel just fine with someone writing about me, but right now, all the stories my daughter writes that include me are complimentary. I’m sure my tune will change once she reaches puberty.

      1. Tara DaPra

        Josey–I’m sure Creative Nonfiction will be delighted to hear you’re going to pony up for a subscription 🙂 This issue will also include two other essays on the same subject–“in conversation”–something they haven’t done before and I’m really excited to read.

        I have been at work revising a chapter of my memoir and one of my weaknesses is writing clear character descriptions, especially since the people are so familiar to me. I wonder, is this related to a small worry about unfavorably portraying them?

      2. Josey

        …or maybe knowing that they portray unfavorable characteristics that you’re about to bring to light.

        who knows. we’re human which means we all have unfavorable characteristics, but what a dilemma it is to confront those characteristics in people we love (or, god forbid, people who have given us the genes that supplied the characteristics we most dislike in ourselves) on the page.

        of course, my latest bookstore splurge included a “Hey Girl” Ryan Gosling journal to keep in my purse, so take whatever i say knowing that about me.

  5. Downith

    Teri, thanks for sharing that essay. (and Tara, thanks for writing it!) I was especially intrigued by this quote,

    “You can’t put together a memoir without cannibalizing your own life for parts. The work battens on your memories. And it replaces them.”

  6. Tara DaPra

    Yes, I love that line too. When I first began to write creative nonficiton, I thougth I had to write down every single thing that happened–“the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”–or it wouldn’t be authentic. But that doesn’t make for good storytelling, so the writer has to omit some parts and emphasize others. Memory is an amazing tool to aid this since we forgot so much; what we do remember, then, is usually significant.

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