When 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.
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