Can I write about the people in my life without using them or stealing their agency?
So, there’s a dirty little secret about writing, particularly personal essays:
When you chronicle your experiences, and the people with whom you have shared or created those experiences, you are in many ways reducing those people to something less than human. To some degree, they become props, fodder, puppets that you can move across the stage of your own memory.
The problem is that as the writer, you control the narrative, and so the other people involved lose their agency, their true internal thoughts and motivations. They become a satellite in YOUR orbit, a vessel into which you can pour your own assumptions, a tool that you can use however will be best to make your point or support your conclusion.
There is no avoiding this. It will always be the truth about writing.
So you forge ahead anyway, and you hope that, as you reduce the people you care about and share your life with to paper dolls, you will do so respectfully, and with care. You try your very best to do them justice. You hope to god you won’t fuck it up.
Sometimes, on this blog, I write about the people I have dated. I write about the moments we have shared, the good stuff, the weird stuff, and I’m not always complimentary. I do it anonymously, but even so.
And now I’m seeing someone new. And I don’t want to use anybody, ever. But I really don’t want to use them. I don’t want them to be a prop. I don’t want to steal their agency. And finally, I don’t want them to feel as though I am just a tourist, dating them for a kind of travel-journalism.
So can I write about our relationship at all?
This is something that I thought about a lot while reading Lena Dunham’s memoir. A compulsive oversharer, everyone in Lena’s life is grist for the mill, and I can’t help but wonder if that has affected any of her relationships with friends and family. She does reflect on this when writing about her current boyfriend, Jack:
I have written all sorts of paragraphs recounting [our first] months together. I wrote it down, found the words that evoked the exact feeling…But surveying those words, I realized they are mine. He is mine to protect. There is so much I’ve shared, and so much that’s been crushed by sharing. I never mourned it, because it never mattered.
And I get that. I do. We all must find our line in the sand, and draw it firmly. But where is my line?
I still want to process my experiences, especially the complicated ones — like relationships. Writing is an important part of how I self-reflect. It creates a sounding board, a space for me to say things and hear them echoed back to me, and understand them better, and continue to evolve.
(I also realize that I am no Lena Dunham, and putting one’s experiences into writing on a nascent blog with 850 followers is different in scale to writing a bestselling memoir while on hiatus from making, essentially, Sex and the City for millennials. But it is the idea of the thing. It is the principle.)
I will continue to write, and my new relationship will no doubt show up in some shape or form on QGB. But first I need to have a conversation with the lovely person in question. And once I begin — I can only hope that I will do this justice.
2 thoughts on “The Puppet Show”
I have very often struggled with this very same issue: how to tell a story that is interesting and relevant without reducing the people in it (because people, after all, make a story interesting) to caricatures. Reading your take on it was both disquieting, because you are voicing my worries, and comforting, as it’s good to know I’m not the only one who wonders. I must add that every piece written by you that I have read has been both honest and empathetic, no matter the subject. One might necessarily reduce people by writing about them, but I think you do it with respect.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thank you, that is very comforting to hear.
LikeLiked by 1 person