Dear Susu #13: To Betray or Not to Betray
“How do I write my story without hurting the people I love?”
Welcome to the latest installment of Dear Susu, my advice column where I answer your questions about writing and life and everything in between. Today’s question is from “Longing to Be Loyal,” on the ethics of writing about others. She has a story she wants to tell but fears her loved ones will perceive it as a betrayal.
There is a story I have started many times, in many forms. It wants to be written, it’s my story—it’s also our story hopefully—but because it is based on my life, there are people who could be very hurt by it being told publicly. I tell myself I will write it when they are no longer alive. But even that feels like a betrayal. I wonder if other writers face this particular dilemma?
Longing to Be Loyal
Dear Longing to Be Loyal,
There’s a short answer and a long answer to this question, and the short answer is yes. I don’t know a single writer who hasn’t grappled with the dilemma of how to write about others. As the brilliant Cheryl Strayed told me during an event we did together, “The most unfortunate thing about writing a memoir is that other people exist.”
From the very start of my writing life, I have wrestled with the question of writing about other people: when I was writing my New York Times “Life, Interrupted” column, while writing my memoir Between Two Kingdoms, and up to this day, as I begin to sketch out a new book of prose and paintings. Just last week, I was at a writing retreat with nine other women, and it came up at dinner almost every night—and not only among nonfiction writers. One woman said she wanted to write a novel based on her grandmother, who is no longer alive, but she’s still waiting, because she can’t write it until her mother dies.
To quote another gem I gleaned through the memoirist grapevine, also attributed to Cheryl Strayed: “Every writer is waiting for someone to die to write a book.”
So it’s been more than a decade now that I’ve been meditating on the question of writing about others—on both the ethics and the practicalities. I have asked every writer I’ve ever met their rules and sought out every think piece and craft book on the subject, all with the hope of finding a definitive answer.
What I discovered?
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