What’s Fair Game?

An essay I wrote about a former lover is being published in an anthology called Precipice. In the essay, I use the person’s actual first name because, when I wrote it, no other name seemed a good substitute. And the story I told isn’t a flattering one, really about either of us. It’s about him engineering a visit to see me more than thirty years after our relationship ended and showing up in a way that just dripped of expectation that I had been waiting all that time, instead, I guess, of getting married and having a lot of children and pursuing a career and doing the things people do in life. He came back as if I had been waiting at the bus station since the day he left.

I was queasy about writing the story but knew it was a good one because of how it had stuck in my mind. Something you think about for a long time, on and off, usually has some kind of good message in it.

So I wrote the story and it’s being published in this anthology in the fall. I have no idea how many people will read it and certainly no idea if he ever will. I doubt it. I’m not going to mail him an autographed copy.

Thinking back, I wonder if it the relationship that I had had with this man or the weird visit that happened thirty years after was fair game for an essay. What’s fair game and what isn’t always is the question if a person writes personal essays or memoir.

Whose story is it? That’s always the question I ask myself? Is this my story to tell?

I think that’s one of the hard parts about writing a lot of personal essays knowing where the rights to one’s own story run up against other people’s rights to their stories.

I think there’s a risk when a person writes memoir of leaching the juice out of other people’s stories to make up for the feeling that one’s own story has gone dry. When I get in that place, I start writing about current events. The important thing to me is to be a writer, so if sometimes I’m writing something very personal and, hopefully, compelling and other times I’m commenting on the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, that’s fine. Can I put together a coherent piece, turn a good phrase, and say something new without borrowing feelings and perceptions observed by me but owned by other people?

In the case of the Precipice essay, I probably come pretty close to the line, my own, self-imposed line.

I’m not going to make a habit of that necessarily. This was maybe an exceptional case. Maybe he deserved a little leaching.


#37/100: 37th in a series of 100 in 100


7 Comments on “What’s Fair Game?

  1. Good question. I sometimes stop myself from writing a story because it starts to seem like it’s an invasion of another person’s privacy. But what’s funny is that sometimes I don’t think that person would even recognize himself/herself in the telling, and probably wouldn’t even remember events the same way. In that way, I think we all have our own stories to tell even when other people are included in them. Our perspective is our own.

  2. I wrote a piece once, and I used his middle name instead of his first name. The whole piece was flat, to me, and I think it was because his name was off. That piece, like him, didn’t go anywhere.

  3. Unless it’s sweetness, I only write about the dead. My daughter read my memoir about her dad who committed suicide with the understanding that I would not pursue publishing unless she approved. Her only complaint was that she didn’t figure more in it! Ah, the narcissism of teens!
    But this ex sounds like an asshole so who cares. Perhaps you should send an autographed copy!

  4. This is very relevant for me. Except I am the one who left … technically.

    I am considering the use of real names. For now, the real name is inside the piece. I tried for a while writing in third person. I also tried telling the story in fiction. Neither worked. Something about the name — for now — is necessary.

    Congrats on the piece being published.

  5. I wouldn’t have any characters at all if I didn’t base most of them on actual people. I’m not of the extreme view, that writers include known entities just to exact revenge. I’m more in the wish-fulfillment sector, but those who wouldn’t want to fulfill my wishes probably WISH I hadn’t included them! I do change all the names and create composites for the most “sensitive” models (meaning, the ones I don’t want to hate me, yet).

    Best to you!


  6. I have had the same uneasiness when I was writing case studies for curriculum that would be used by other faculty for a very long time. They were my stories, of course because they came from my brain, but based on the lives of other people (or my own). I think when we write something real, especially about the real side of life that isn’t so pretty, we know we are holding a mirror up that all will look into and probably not like what they see. Don’t we recognize ourselves and others we know in all really good writing? We all aren’t very different from each other, especially in the first half of our lives.

  7. I say you have nothing to be ashamed of dear. If I had to run it past my Raymond every time I wrote anything about him, I’d never get anything out on the ruddy internet. Not because he would object. More likely because the lazy so and so would never get around to reading it so that he could give me the go ahead.
    Besides, your ex bloke can always write his side of the story if the fancy takes him!

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