Guest Post: Chris Munde

The Winchester HouseI realized I wasn’t ready to write a poem about decorum when I couldn’t tell how an epigraph from the Budd Dwyer suicide video would play to the average person. In particular, I wanted to quote the press secretary’s plea for onlookers to “show a little decorum, please,” since it made me realize how strange the act of demanding/measuring civility is. That use of such a line might come off as disrespectful did occur to me, though, and I was forced to do some measuring myself.

With tastefulness just out of reach, I couldn’t plan any further until I eliminated all of the other weighted words that might muddy my understanding of the one. “Aesthetic” was out, since it brought too broad of a focus, and since I‘d lost Eco’s “On Ugliness” to a basement flood. The same went for “Ethics,” which should be a part of everything, and so should be the cedar dinner table, and not woodchips in the meal. “Taboo,” as a near-synonym for “bad taste,” might provide me with the dangerous shelter of circular reasoning. Gone too were excuses; I vowed not to namedrop or allude to Bataille in some attempt to blame my own lack of taste on a literary precedent.

I then thought of others’ approaches to decorum, and of the way I tended to process them, and turn them out in the cold in various states of dress. For instance, when processing a friend’s death, I had made a list of drug overdose scenes in films of all kinds. When I returned to it later, I considered how the scenes ranged from visceral bursts of close-up special effects to a single shot of a shoeless foot in a doorway. I found myself shopping the list for certain types of impacts, and was struck most by a scene from In a Glass Cage, in which the director instructed the child actor to behave like a fish out of water after his character had been injected with gasoline. This scene, I felt, defied good taste in an interesting way, as any apologetic attempt I might make to soften its imagery by adding context (“Don’t worry; it’s another child who administers the injection,” or “he does it to impress his adult captive, a paralyzed doctor”) only deepened the tastelessness. That I feel the need to apologize after describing this scene, which I did not create, says as much about decorum as does the scene itself.

Therefore, apology seems to be what holds decorum together. If I get caught mouthing a scream into a restroom mirror, I might apologize for doing it and the observer might apologize for seeing, even though he’s not done anything socially wrong. Some people even push apology into the realm of atonement, like Sarah Winchester, designer of the labyrinthine Winchester house. She required builders to continually add on to the house to appease the ghosts of those who were killed by Winchester firearms, until the house became a hodgepodge of doors to nowhere and staircases into solid ceiling. It’s what “I’m sorry for everyone else” might look like in concrete form.

Though this didn’t put me off decorum altogether, I was (and am now) more inclined to risk tastelessness if the alternative is a thousand doors to nowhere. I plan to continue to use the line from the suicide video, though probably not as an epigraph; I’d want to control the context, so that it worked to honor truth, instead of repulsing readers with irreverence. I could think of it as mapping the terrain: Identifying the staircases that always lead to a bloody nose, only using them when I need a bloody nose, stumbling down uncharted ones. I might practice my quiet scream in the restroom mirror (my late friend, of course, not there to excuse me), and see what dialogue comes in absence of an apology.

Guest Post, Ashley Caveda: You Probably Think This Post Is About You

Ashley CavedaWhen I was in grad school, as a creative nonfiction writer, I was plagued by one topic in particular: the ethical requirements—as well as the possible practical fallout—of writing about real people. I devoured every article or piece of advice I could find on the subject. I attended panels and read books. I asked my professors how they handled this tricky matter. The answers were fuzzier than I wanted them to be. A simple “Do this, but not this” formula would have suited me just fine.

At times, my various sources recommended changing the name or characteristics of someone. But this proved more difficult when the person was a family member. A close relative’s relationship to me was often so central to whatever I might write that it seemed nearly impossible to recast identity. It simply wouldn’t work.

So I forged ahead, trying to get the story—as I understood it—on the page. Truly, my fears seemed to belong to some distant future that involved actually sending my work out. And once I began to submit my writing to journals, these worries were still relegated to some faraway time in which those pieces were actually accepted and, eventually, even further down the line, published. The now was just about the work.

And then it happened. Superstition Review published a short essay I’d written about my father. It was an unflattering portrait to be sure, but reflected something very real and life altering that had happened during my senior semester abroad. I was nervous, but hopeful he’d never see it. Of course, you should expect that no matter whom you’re writing about, that person will one day read what you have written. No matter if the journal is print-only, distributed to 50 people who live on the opposite side of the country. But especially you should expect this when the readership is much wider and the journal is web-based.

Sure enough, my father read the essay. He was very upset. According to my uncle, my father said, “What she wrote isn’t true. And even if it is true, she shouldn’t have written it.” I struggled with this notion. Whether or not I should have written the essay. I struggle with it every time I write. But what I always come back to is how writing is the process by which I come to know and make sense of myself and the world around me. It’s important for me to shape and share the things that make me laugh and that break my heart. This is how I communicate my humanness. It was never my intention to hurt my father.

This isn’t to say I won’t continue to write about people I know. In fact, I’m working on a memoir about my siblings, my parents, and myself. What it does mean is that maybe now I’m more aware of the awesome power writing gives me. And as an ethical person, I have to approach writing with humility and to recognize my own shortcomings and constantly consider whether I am offering my perspective in a balanced way. I want to be gentle. I don’t want to make anyone into a villain or a hero.

I should write without fear, perhaps. But I must remember that I act as editor and director of the truth when I write. I choose the moments to share and there are always moments that are left unwritten. I pick up human beings and treat them as characters, forcing them into a two-dimensional construct that attempts to mirror reality. And I have to remind myself again and again that it’s impossible to distill an entire human life down to 700 words. Or even 7,000. No matter how true I believe them to be, my words are always an approximation, a limited view of a full, three-dimensional person.