Musings on the Wild World of Writing & Editing

Archive for November, 2012

Excuse Me, But Is This Too Revealing?

During the second semester of my freshman year, I was sitting in the hallway of my dorm studying for a psychology exam. My roommate was in the middle of a family crisis, so I was giving her privacy while her boyfriend comforted her. From what I can remember, it was a Friday night, so a lot of the girls were dressing up for a night out, wearing surprisingly little considering it was 40 degrees outside. One girl (I can’t remember her name so I’ll call her Nicole) was waiting outside her room for her friend to arrive. Nicole’s back coat was longer than whatever dress or skirt she was wearing underneath, and when the friend arrived, Nicole turned with her back to me and opened her coat and asked, “Is this too short?” For all I knew, she was flashing her friend. Like most things in life (relationships, money, etc.), my motto is “If you have to ask, you can’t _____.” For example, “If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it” or “If you have to ask someone to change or tell you they love you, you can’t afford to be with them.” My motto in this case was, “If you have to ask if it’s too short, then it’s too short.”

As I said, this motto applies to many areas in life, including writing. Every creative nonfiction writer, especially memoirists, faces the dilemma of how much he or she should reveal while writing personal narrative. Oftentimes, the characters in the memoir/essay are still alive and ostensibly can get their hands on a book. And often the writer is not portraying the characters in a particularly flattering manner. Unfortunately, the writer cannot wait for every possibly offended person to die or cut out all the salient details, so the question is, “How much should I reveal?” Casting others in a negative light is dangerous or implying potentially harmful sentiments has its consequences.

It’s no secret that memoirists often tweak the facts of the past to suit their purposes (if you want factually accurate, buy an autobiography), but how far is too far is the debate that rages on in the writing community–at what point does omission or minor changes become lying? Should writers alter their story to avoid hurt feelings and harming relationships at the risk of their own artistic integrity? My answer? It depends on how important these relationships are to you and how understanding the other person is likely to be, especially if he or she is litigious (think libel) or particularly sensitive. Some memoirists write under a pseudonym or change the story enough that they decide to publish the book as fiction–the creative nonfiction has become narrative nonfiction. The story is marketed as a novel, and the writer is free to manipulate the story any way he or she pleases. The internal turmoil can be excruciating for a writer, but after careful contemplation, he or she comes to the conclusion that he or she is most comfortable with.

But not all would-be memoirists go through traditional publishing channels. Blogging sites allow any writer to instantly write, post, display, and share anything he or she likes–from fiction to political opinion to book reviews to memoir–without the inspection of an editor or a lawyer, for that matter. If your blog is not advertised to your family and friends, feel free to post whatever you want. But it’s like posts on Facebook–consider your audience before you press enter, because there are 100+ people who might see it. And be doubly careful, because once you press publish, there’s no disguising yourself or taking back what you said once someone has read it. The “e” in “e-mail” or “e-journal” does not stand for “electronic”: It stands for “evidence” and “eternal.” Whatever you put out into the blogosphere is fair game for anyone to read, copy+paste onto a word document, and keep forever.

Is it counterproductive to the writing process to self-censor in the name of sparing others’ feelings? For one, writers who are not absolutely clear about their meaning leave the ambiguity of the written word as a communicator (again why going through a traditional publishing channel when discussing personal issues is preferable to the blogging world). But to answer my question: Yes, and no. Many writers pride themselves about their transparency and honesty in their writing, baring all in the name of the craft. But for me, I have different priorities. I’ve edited out a fair bit of potentially damaging material from my own work, or if I do write pieces that are damaging, I never submit them for publication or share them with others. I cannot claim to be a tell-all writer, but I’m okay with that, because I put my family and friends first and my needs and wants as a writer second. I struggle with the decision to hit the delete key, but usually I don’t regret keeping my relationships intact. I’d rather give up some of my artistic authenticity than insult my loved ones or harm our relationships. Perhaps I lack the courage or even maturity, but I have plenty of writing material without hurting others. One of my favorite authors of all time, David Sedaris, is shameless when using his family’s stories in his work. I suppose he’s already cleared it with them or maybe has come to terms with the possibility that his family will resent using their histories. I have no idea. But I am not a bestselling author, and I do not pretend to be more than I am as a writer. I have humility and appropriately modify my writing.

As I mentioned above, many writers claim to be set apart from the crowd by their open and honest writing. News flash: it doesn’t. I may self-censor, but because there is a plethora of writers who claim to be brutally honest, any declaration of honesty is rendered null and void. So when you’re considering how confessional to be (and that’s a whole other topic–confessional writing), remember that putting it all out there is not being artistic. A true memoirist carefully selects what to reveal in order to craft a narrative. Writing ad infinitum about your feelings or problems in an attempt to be an artist without consciously deciding what to discard and what to display is the opposite of good writing. The best writers are meticulous in the way they portray themselves and others–before they submit the manuscript or press “publish,” they have decided what to include and what to leave out and have accepted the potential fallout.

 

Book List 2012: Holiday Edition!

So we are officially approaching the holiday season now that Halloween is over. Like me, you’ve probably made a list of people you need to buy or make gifts for, and what better gift than a book? So, I’ve compiled a list of some of this year’s best reads (according to me) for everyone on your list. I have listed the full prices, but bargain hunters are sure to find a good deal at discount stores and online. I’ve also provided some paperback alternatives in certain categories. Also, my list is limited to the people I encounter in my social circle, so I might have missed a couple categories. Happy shopping!

For the female friend: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed, hardcover $25.95.

Don’t let the Oprah’s Book Club endorsement fool you–Strayed’s powerful and insightful writing makes this memoir both harrowing and honest. Strayed recounts how, at twenty-two, she faces the loss of her mother to cancer and must find a way to survive emotionally. Four years later, now facing the destruction of her marriage, she impulsively decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. This story is one of healing and coping with crushing grief. Strayed is a masterful writer who combines wit, humor, lyricism, and emotion. I love the way she treats grief, death, and the reality that closure is just a dream.

For the mystery lover: Broken Harbor by Tana French, hardcover $27.95.

In her fourth novel, French returns with the same emotional force and talent that marked her previous three books: In the WoodsThe Likeness, and Faithful Place. This time her protagonist murder detective is Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy who, with a green rookie, takes on one of the biggest cases of the year: a father and two children slain in their own home, the mother in a coma. French employs the same psychological insight to create this masterfully constructed murder mystery, her most shocking and powerful yet. When I read this book, my jaw literally dropped when I figured out the murderer. Definitely a page turner and definitely full of plot twists and surprises, French has written another tour de force. A must-read for anyone who loves psychological thrillers.

For the statistician/math nerd: The Signal and the Noise: Why so Many Predictions Fail But Some Don’t by Nate Silver, hardcover $27.95

Nate Silver, famed author of the blog five-thirty-eight on the New York Times, is renowned for his uncanny ability to use statistics to make amazing predictions in politics and in his previous career, baseball. He recently received flak from political pundits for projecting a solid electoral win for President Obama, and his predictions turned out to be right. I’ve seen him on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and he is adorably geeky, a lovable nerd with his large glasses and awkward demeanor. What can I say? I have a thing for smart guys. Even for those who aren’t the best mathematicians, this book is great for anyone who loves to stretch his or her mind. Settle down with your calculator to learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff in a world full of proliferation of polls and manipulation of numbers.

For the journalist/CNF lover: Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries by Jon Ronson, hardcover $26.95

One of the current kings of nonfiction and investigative journalism, Jon Ronson has captured America with his The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test. His subtle humor and hilarious handling of some of the most absurd situations in modern society make Ronson one of the most entertaining and intelligent authors on the market. In this book, Ronson examines the deep, underlying crazy that defines human society and some of the more bizarre ideas we’re willing to believe in, from seemingly mundane topics like credit card companies’ ability to bleed you dry to the more outlandish, like self-made superheroes. His humane treatment of some of the most inhumane and puzzling issues in our world today makes for a fascinating read, colored by his self-deprecating and goofy British humor.

For the fiction fan: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, hardcover $25

I keep seeing this book in lists of the best books of 2012 and at the top of bestseller lists. If you keep up with publishing industry news, you can’t escape the darn thing. Suspense writer Flynn takes a look at the dark side of marriage with unflinching honesty and thrilling prose. An ingenious plot, a dark tone, and a fast plot make this book a must-read. If you’re looking for a calmer piece of fiction, you might want to look elsewhere to avoid reading about a serial killer. I’ve been behind on my fiction reading this year, so I’m lost in the dark on this one, but hopefully one of your friends will appreciate this great thriller. If you’re looking for an alternative, Barbara Kingsolver’s new book Flight Behavior is now available for $26.99. With Kingsolver’s usual lyrical writing, she delivers another social commentary (this time on global warming) through her incredible storytelling.

For the history buff: The Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 by Anne Applebaum, hardcover $35

With so much misperception around the Cold War, Applebaum’s thoroughly researched work sheds light on the traumatic period from the end of WWII to the beginnings of the Cold War. Applebaum debunks myths, clarifies confusion, and shares testimonies of men and women caught in this time and place. Not a fan of the Cold War, European history, or modern history? Don’t worry; this book is highly readable and based on primary research, so no slogging through academia and secondary sources. If you’re looking for something more suitable to your tastes that you might have missed last year, consider Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie, now in paperback for $20, a fifteen-dollar reduction from last year’s hardback.

For the psychology student: Coming of Age on Zoloft: How Antidepressants Cheered Us Up, Let us Down, and Changed who We Are by Katherine Sharpe, paperback $14.99

Katherine Sharpe blends the best of both worlds in this well researched and personal book: personal narrative memoir and interviews with history writing. In an age where many of us are medicated, Sharpe takes a look at the antidepressant age’s effects on adolescents, who either find antidepressants freeing of depression and a return to normalcy or instead those who find them too altering and hate the label of “chemically imbalanced.” Sharpe combines her personal experience with antidepressants and skillful historical writing. A balanced discussion of a controversial topic.

For the comedian: America Again, Rebecoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t by Stephen Colbert, hardcover $28.99

Colbert showcases his satire and parody in his latest book, which addresses the paradox that Americans are clamoring to become great again without admitting that America might have fallen from being the best country ever. Whether or not you’re a fan of the show, this book is sure to entertain as well as provoke some thought while providing America with a blueprint with how to get back on track. If you’re looking for a less expensive alternative, consider Tina Fey’s Bossypants, her hilarious memoir, now in paperback. With her usual self-deprecating humor and odd-earned wisdom, Fey discusses her childhood, dealing with “crotch muffins,” and “having it all.”

For the chef: Barefoot Contessa Foolproof, Recipes You Can Trust by Ina Garten, hardcover $35

Even though I dislike the Contessa for turning down that dying little boy who wanted to cook with her for his Make a Wish, you can’t deny that Ina’s recipes are delicious (probably because the first item on each one is at least one cup of heavy cream or two sticks of butter). Garten focuses on making cooking easy and helping you plan menus and coordinate cooking so that you host the perfect dinner party. A must-have for anyone who loves to host, entertain, or cook. If you’re looking for a low-cost way to give your friend some cooking ideas, consider giving them an iTunes gift card so they can buy that Food Network or All Recipes app they’ve had their eye on.

For the intellectual: Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks, hardcover $26.95

Neurologist Oliver Sacks is back to explain to us that hallucinations are everyone’s problem, not just the clinically insane. We have hallucinations for a whole host of reasons: sleep deprivation, lack of food, illness, etc. Sacks discusses his patients and investigates the cultural and scientific history of hallucinations to show us how halluncinations are an integral facet of the human condition. Written for laypeople, Sacks’ writing is accessible to the non-neuroscientists of the world. If you’re looking for a paperback alternative, consider getting Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach, one of the best science writers out there.

For the political scientist: The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Political Campaigns by Sasha Issenberg, hardback $26

Prepare to be creeped out by Sasha Issenberg’s new book that looks at how the political campaign has become an industry full of market research using voters as unwitting test subjects. By collecting information from where you live, where you shop, what websites you visit, what magazines you subscribe to, campaign advisers now think they can predict for whom you’ll vote before you do. You’ll discover that political campaigns have adopted advertisers’ tactics of tracking your habits without your consent to predict your behavior. Possibly paranoia-inducing, this book promises new insights into a multi-million dollar industry.

For the friend who is never afraid to tell you that no, those shoes do not go with that outfit: Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible: The Fascinating History of Everything in Your Closet, hardcover $28

In his second book about fashion, Tim Gunn (famous for his sass, flavor, and wit on Project Runway) takes you through the different items in your wardrobe and tells you the history of each piece and forms a narrative of the history of fashion from togas to chain mil to corsets to skinny jeans. If you love Gunn’s flair, this book is a great gift for the intellectual fashionista who will be glad to have a historical reason as to why that top and those pants just don’t work together. If you’re looking for more on fashion and culture and want a paperback alternative, consider Joan DeJean’s Essence of Style about how the French invented haute couture, haute cuisine, and everything fashionable in between.

For the person who has to read the book before seeing the movie:

  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, paperback $6.95: The unforgettable, timeless Russian classic by one of the great masters. The movie comes out on November 16.
  • Life of Pi, Deluxe Illustrated Edition by Yann Martel, hardcover $16.50: So I’m sure many of you have already read Life of Pi, but I just recently found out about the illustrated edition, in which Croatian artist Tomislav Torjanac illustrates scenes in beautiful oils. The movie comes out November 21.
  • Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, paperback $21: The new movie Lincoln starring Daniel Day Lewis will be out November 16, 2012, so prepare to read through this long, fascinating historical account of how Lincoln worked with his “team of rivals” to lead the US through the Civil War.
  • Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, paperback $9.95: French classic, the movie adaptation of the famous musical stars Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman and will come out Christmas Day.
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, paperback $8.75: A staple of the American literary canon, The Great Gatsby will receive a new interpretation by Baz Luhrmann, director of Moulin Rouge. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, and Tobey Maguire, the movie will come out on May 10, 2013.

If you want to give a book-related gift but don’t have the cash or the time to sniff out deals, consider making bookmarks for your family and friends! Lamination is fairly cheap these days, and personalizing a bookmark is easy: cut some cardboard or scrapbook paper into a long, thing rectangle, personalize with stickers, quotes, pictures, etc., and laminate! Or, for a more crafty touch: http://www.countryliving.com/crafts/projects/practically-free-crafts#slide-1

Anyway, happy holidays everyone! I’ll be spending this month counting out the things I’m thankful for: good books, great friends, wonderful family.

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