Writing About the Dead

Mt. Zion Cemetery, Georgetown

Mt. Zion Cemetery, Georgetown

A colleague from the Association of Personal Historians forwarded a link to Ken Budd’s 11/20/13 piece in the NYTimes about the choices he made in writing about his deceased father. Budd quotes C.S. Lewis in “A Grief Observed” that mourning those we’ve lost makes “the dead far more dead.” His essay describes why he disagrees with Lewis, and how he came to terms with writing about his father in a way he knew his father would not have liked.

I’m constantly reminding my memoir students that they can only tell their own stories, can write about others’ lives only from the perspective of their own. I explain that telling their truest story, with integrity and love, is the only armor they’ll need when family members say, “That’s not the way it happened!” I remind them that someone, some time, will inevitably challenge their memories, and their right to record those memories. And I say they should do it anyway.

When we write memoir, we’re writing more about our understanding of the events than about the events themselves. We strive for accuracy and fairness, and we hope for the best. No one writing about their own life ever gets it all down, every little detail exactly right. We edit and filter without knowing it, simply by going about our days in the ways we’re accustomed to. If that’s the case with our own stories, how can we hope to capture the entirety of anyone else’s story? The point, I think, is to record something, some small thing, about any particular life.

But the C.S. Lewis quote reminded me of a workshop exercise at the APH conference last month where a colleague from Argentina, Eduardo, said something I’ve been contemplating ever since. Eduardo said that if we don’t remember and talk about those we’ve known after they are gone, it’s as if they have died twice: once physically, and again in memory when those who knew and remembered them are gone. He worried that his English wasn’t good enough to express this thought, but he conveyed it beautifully.

The troubling thing, of course, and the point of Ken Budd’s article, is that we can only tell another person’s story through the filter of our own story. It’s not entirely fair, or entirely accurate, to tell anyone’s story this way, especially when they are gone and have no way to correct the record, or contribute to the story. Memoirists struggle with this mightily. We should struggle with this, and pay careful attention to it, in the same way we should be paying attention to the people alive all around us.

That’s the deal, you know. Paying attention to how we affect the lives of others, and how their lives affect ours, is the price we pay for the privilege of being alive on Earth with other humans. Telling stories is how we make sense of that privilege.

4 thoughts on “Writing About the Dead

  1. Very well put – even professional historians understand that their interpretation of the research they uncover and the way they convey past events is never entirely objective, although they strive for this ideal. We always colour our writing/storytelling with our own perspectives and biases. I wonder if I might not suggest to any nervous clients that they get in front of any potential criticism from people who viewed the anecdotes they’re relating differently by printing some kind of gentle disclaimer at the front or back of the book along the lines of “and these are the events as I remember them”. It would give them something to point to .. and give them the chance to encourage that person to call me to help them tell _their_ side of the story! 😉

    Thank you for reminding me of Eduardo’s quote. It’s a keeper. I conveyed the meaning in a presentation I made to a group of people I met with recently, but not quite using this very effective formula. I’ll have to keep it in mind for next time.

    • Michelle, thanks for the good suggestion for clients. Some of the people I’ve worked with have incorporated a disclaimer-type statement within their dedication. It can be quite charming. And as you say, it helps people realize they have their own stories to tell!

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