The Stories We Tell About The People We’ve Left Behind

Content Warning for non-specific discussions of trauma and abuse.

One of the many lessons I’ve learned about writing over the years is that, if I’m writing about something that happened, about real people, I need to focus on writing about only my experience of the event. I’ve had a few disastrous attempts in the past, where I’ve written about how I’ve noticed someone acting and tried to put to words the feel of what they told me. I don’t think I’ve ever done it in a way that didn’t feel immediately embarrassing. It can be a fine line, the space between the two concepts, but it is easy to write about how I felt listening to someone talk or the part I played in a difficult time in someone else’s life. It is much more difficult to write about what they went through from a first-person perspective. As I’ve slowly worked at writing outside my direct experience, at learning to portray events and feelings I never encountered (frequently with much input from people willing to share their experiences with me, knowing I’m trying to write about something similar), I’ve paid special attention to all the high-profile instances of people basically stealing the life stories of others.

There’s been a few particularly famous instances, were people have either plagiarized people’s non-fiction stories about their own lives or where people have used the details of someone else’s life to tell a story. I don’t really want to link to them because they’re all parts of a discourse in the writing world that I want no part of, but it has struck everywhere from personal blogs, to the details of a person’s life being stolen as anecdotes for someone, to pieces written for publication, and to bit-parts in other stories. Most of it revolves around the idea of where the line between “inspired by” and “stolen from” is supposed to be drawn, which is not really a thing you have to deal with when you’re using your own experiences in a story. After all, I don’t really need to borrow from the lives and stories of other people to write about pain, suffering, or trauma.

Still, I think a lot about what it means to depict the thoughts, feelings, and lives of the other people involved in my own stories. For a long time, I wrote off any worries about where to draw my own lines using the idea that Anne Lamott puts forward in her book about writing, Bird by Bird: “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” I still think that’s largely true, of course. After all, if all I’m doing is revealing someone’s participation in something awful and not embellishing on the details, they have no right to complain. If they see themselves in a villain I’m writing or in the pain inflicted on a character, then I hope that they reflect on that. What has changed isn’t my belief in the idea so much as my application of it. It’s not something I use to dismiss the question of where I should draw my own lines anymore, but something I use as a frame for what it will mean to someone else to see themselves in my stories.

One of the most difficult parts of attempting to heal through a traumatic past with someone who has expressed an interest in reforming is that they frequently have a difficult time with seeing themselves as a person at fault. Empathy is not a trait commonly associated with abusers (though I’m sure there are many abusive folks out there who use their empathetic ability to better manipulate others), so it can take a lot of work to get someone to see what they did to you. I had long hoped that I’d be able to eventually write something that would be able to make people see what they had done, that would bridge gaps in understanding and allow me to fully communicate something with another person by providing the exact right point to meet them where they’re at. While I still think this is a good goal to have as I try to become a better writer, I don’t think it’s particularly realistic. I’m not sure I ever did, but I definitely did a much better job in the past of not questioning the idea.

I think the major shift here is that I stopped writing these stories, stopped reflecting on my past via the written word, for other people. In the past few years, I’ve been doing it for myself. It’s a small shift, the same width as the aforementioned space between writing about my experiences in a situation and the experiences of somebody I witnessed, but one that matters a lot. It is easier to create distance between the faux villains and the real ones so that I can more confidently say that what someone is seeing in my story is something they’re bringing with them, not something I put there. It helps me feel more at ease, if nothing else, since I doubt any of the people I would want to change are ever going to reach the degree of self-reflection required to see themselves in the words of someone else. None of them are narcissists, after all, so they don’t frequently assume everything is about them. If anything, the opposite is true.

I feel like being able to see the space between these two ideas is a sign of the healing I’ve done in the last few years. I feel like knowing this distinction and feeling like it matters to me is a sign that I’ve done a lot of processing my trauma, that I no longer need to work through what happened to me because so much as how I feel about it and all the time that has passed since each incident. I think it’s good, even if I worry that I’m maybe thinking about it all a little too much. Healing is a lifelong journey, though, so I suspect this is fine for now. I’ll keep working through things and maybe, someday, it’ll all feel as distant and foreign as the first story I wrote about my childhood, while I was still in a mixture of denial and survival-based partitioning.

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