In the 48th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Jennifer Horne, author of Tell the World You're a Wildflower (University of Alabama Press), discusses striking the difficult balance between writing the truth and not hurting others' feelings.
“When I argued, somewhat lamely, that it would be pointless for individuals to try to identify themselves since I carefully constructed composite characters that would defy any attempts at labeling or identification, I was silenced: ‘Nonsense! You know us for better than that. You think we didn’t, each of us, sit down poring over every page until we had recognized the bits and pieces of ourselves strewn about here and there. You turned us into amputees with hooks for fingers and some other blackguard’s heart beating inside our own chest.’”
—Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics
One of my favorite childhood books, Harriet the Spy, turns fifty this year. This classic novel by Louise Fitzhugh tells the story of eleven-year-old Harriet M. Welsch, who observes her neighbors and classmates and takes notes—not always nice ones—on what she sees and hears.
When I first read this book, I was around eight. A born observer, I admired Harriet’s regular “spy” route, her notetaking, the way her imagined occupation combined adventure and careful watching. I was already writing poems about art, beauty in nature, and my yearning to travel, and my writer mother encouraged us to make up stories about people we’d see at the grocery store, the bank, or Hancock’s fabric store. I had a notebook of poems and a pen that had four different colors of ink so you could choose your mood as you wrote.
In the drawings that went with the book, Harriet had straight hair and glasses and liked to wear a hooded sweatshirt, jeans, and tennis shoes. So did I. Harriet didn’t quite fit in at school. Neither did I.
But there the resemblances ended. I lived in Little Rock, Arkansas. Harriet lived in a Manhattan brownstone and drank egg creams—whatever they were. How exotic and sophisticated that sounded to me! Harriet also had a nurse named Ole Golly who quoted Dostoyevsky and Wordsworth and was wise and surprisingly complicated.
Harriet’s crisis comes when her classmates see what she has written about them and shun her. Ole Golly has left because Harriet is grown up enough not to need her anymore, and Harriet feels abandoned and angry, but also guilty.
Harriet the Spy was surely the first book I read about the ethics of being a writer: How do you balance your desire to examine and describe against the feelings of those who might recognize themselves in your work and be hurt?
This question comes up regularly in my writing life. My first husband asked me not to write about our divorce, but I did anyway; I had to make sense of it through writing. I’ve recently typed and gathered together my mother’s poems, twenty years after her death, to create a book for friends and family. But should I include poems she wrote about my parents’ divorce if they might hurt my father, still very much alive?
My current book project combines memoir and biography in telling the story of Sara Mayfield, a childhood friend of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald and a biographer of Scott and Zelda and H. L. and Sara Haardt Mencken. I’m constantly wrestling with what parts of my family story are mine to tell, what might injure—or possibly heal—in the telling.
Here’s how little my family likes its stories told: My mother’s two uncles were WWII Navy pilots, and the more famous of the two was due to be honored some years ago by having a street in their hometown of Fordyce, Arkansas, named after him. My mother’s first cousin Jo called to let me know about the ceremonies and to share a concern: She was worried that all this attention would uncover a family secret, namely that my great-uncle’s father and the father’s sister had had a falling-out, did not speak, and only pretended to get along when their parents came to Fordyce to visit, so as not to hurt their feelings. This falling-out would have occurred around 1920. I feel a kinship to Ellen Douglas and her 1998 book Truth: Four Stories I Am Finally Old Enough to Tell; one of her criteria for telling was that the people she wrote about were now long dead.
At Harriet’s low point, Ole Golly writes her a letter in which she says that of course Harriet should put the truth down in her notes, because “What would be the point if you didn’t?” She goes on to encourage Harriet to start writing stories based on her observations, and says that she will read them if Harriet writes them. “Remember,” she says, “that writing is to put love in the world, not to use against your friends. But to yourself you must always tell the truth.”
To put love in the world. To always tell the truth to one’s self. How do you reconcile, how do you balance? The words come from the world of accounting, and perhaps that is what each of us, as writers, must do: account for ourselves. Find what balance we can. Then be willing to face the reckoning.