“…people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.”
Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem
Ten years ago, I published a book about the killings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. In case you've forgotten the details, on April 20, 1999, two teenage boys killed twelve of their fellow students and one teacher. They also wounded more than twenty others before turning their guns on themselves, committing suicide.
Media coverage of this event and its aftermath was massive, as was public interest. Hardly surprising. The Columbine story was full of pain, blood, and spectacle--things that naturally compel our attention.
What particularly demanded my interest were the widely reported stories of two of the victims, Cassie Bernall and Rachel Scott. Supposedly, each was asked by the killers, “Do you believe in God?” When each girl said, “Yes,” she was executed.
Not surprisingly, many people, especially within the conservative Christian community, regarded Cassie and Rachel as modern-day martyrs. My book dealt with these stories, how they emerged and how they were used, religiously, culturally, and politically, in the public discussion of Columbine and its meaning.
I also examined whether these stories were factual. In the end, I had to conclude, somewhat reluctantly, there was little or no reason to believe Cassie and Rachel were “martyred.” The stories were the product of confused and partial information mixed with a real and powerful need to make suffering meaningful, the religious task par excellence.
During my research, I often found myself talking with persons who believed in and drew inspiration from the stories of Cassie and Rachel. And I had to ask, “How do you know that's true?” and “What if it didn't happen that way?” Perhaps they were changed by my questions but I didn't stick around to find out, much less help pick up the pieces. I had moved on.
Even ten years later, I am haunted by Didion's harsh observation: “Writers are always selling someone out.” Was I betraying those kind enough to answer my questions?
They extended to me a degree of trust. But my duty, my agenda, not so much hidden as unspoken, necessitated that I disregard or devalue that trust. As Kant would say, I treated these persons not as ends in themselves but as means to an end.
I suspect some form of this betrayal may be endemic to all forms of writing because we writers must mine reality and personal experience--and sometimes we strip mine it--for our raw material. I am reminded of a T-shirt which reads: “I'm a writer. Anything you say or do may be used in a story.”
This literary Miranda warning not only applies to journalism and creative non-fiction but to fiction as well. Indeed, it may apply especially to fiction.
Living in Asheville, I can't help thinking of Thomas Wolfe's autobiographical novel, Look Homeward Angel. Before it was published, many people here were probably proud of Wolfe, a hometown boy making good. After publication … well, that was a different matter. A 1929 The Asheville Times review made clear why.
Most of the Asheville people who appear in the novel wear their most unpleasant guises. If there attaches to them any scandal which has enjoyed only a subterranean circulation, it is dragged forth into the light. If they have any weakness which more tolerant friends are considerate enough to overlook, these defects are faithfully described. In describing them, the author must often convey the impression to the unknowing that these weaknesses were the distinguishing characteristics of the persons.
Did Wolfe regret this? In his posthumously published novel, You Can't Go Home Again (1940), the protagonist, the author of a novel very much like Look Homeward Angel, tells a friend,
So many words came back to me, so many whip-lash phrases, that must have been written in a spirit that had nothing to do with art or my integrity. We are such stuff that dust is made of, and where we fail--we fail! Is there, then, no such thing as a pure spirit in creation?
We who participate in the Great Smokies Writing Program are, in my experience, nice people. And our writing, almost without exception, is a genteel avocation, not an all-consuming vocation, as it was for Wolfe. I still wonder, however, if we are any more capable of “a pure spirit in creation” than the protagonist of You Can't Go Home Again.
For instance, a novel I've been working on for far too long is anything but autobiographical. The protagonist, Hannah Dustan, is a mother of ten children. She lives on the frontier of seventeenth-century Massachusetts and is abducted by a raiding party of Native American warriors. I'm a single man who lives in twenty-first century artsy-craftsy Asheville. And I'm more likely to be abducted by little green men in a UFO than Native Americans.
Yet in those few fleeting moments when I am honest, really honest, with myself, I know Hannah Dustan and Justin Watson have more than a little in common. I have dredged up experiences and persons and issues from my past, and they, thoroughly disguised, have been sent forth into the dark forests of the seventeenth century to settle some scores--personal scores that have little to do with art or my integrity.
So we writers should remember Wolfe's overwrought but true words, “We are such stuff that dust is made of, and where we fail--we fail!”
And if you should find yourself in the company of a writer, be careful. Anything you say or do may be used in a story.
Consider yourself warned.
Beware the Writer.