Aspen Summer Words 2014 Panel
Featuring: Bernard Cooper and Meghan Daum
Moderator: Barbara Dills
Barbara Dills: How do you decide what is fair game in mining your life for your writing (fiction or non-fiction)?
Bernard Cooper: I think one thing that’s fair game … is understanding one’s illusions in retrospect. Understanding one’s fallibility or misapprehension, and looking at it from a distance is always fair game. … I’m not sure that vengeance is a good motivation for writing—although Annie Lamott says it’s the only motivation—but I think that sort of funny schism between the older self that knows and the younger self that doesn’t is always this incredible thing to probe. It’s a kind of self-criticism that can be really brazen, I think. I love that in this book [referring to Meghan Daum’s upcoming essay collection, The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion].”
Meghan Daum: I find it hard to write from a child’s point of view. I think when you are writing in this genre, it’s useful, for me anyway, to come at it from an adult looking back and be able to say, ‘What I didn’t understand then that I know now is this and this.’ And it just gives you more control over the material and it’s a healthy distance, I think.
People who are not litigious are fair game. People who are dead. And people who don’t have the Internet. … It’s really hard—I think you have to take it on a case by case basis.
BC: It is really hard. … I think you have to write about the people you have to write about.
MD: The rule of thumb always, of course, is if you’re harder on yourself, if you’re harder on the narrator than you are on any other character, person or whatever in the book, then you can get away with it. Now, that’s a little glib. It’s not that simple, but it’s a good place to start from at least. I always try to be meaner to myself, go harder on myself, than anyone else, because otherwise, you’re doomed. I mean, if you have that backwards, it’s really going to not work.
There’s such a dominant narrative, particularly now in the culture, about change. Everything is about the sort or arc of your life. And what if it’s not an arc? What if it’s a line? A flat line.
BD: Patti Smith once said, in reference to her memoir Just Kids, “I didn’t tell the whole story, but everything I wrote was true.” How do you decide what to leave in and what to take or leave out?
BC: I feel that’s a given. Because I think as soon as you start to tell any story, even things that have been eye-witnessed by several people, there are different versions. … In order to make a piece of writing cohere, you can’t have every single person who was in the room in the room and talk about them. There are constant modifications that don’t seem to me like getting farther from the truth, but actually seem like getting closer to the truth because the focus gets more and more clear.
MD: You can’t tell the whole story. … The job of the artist is to narrow it down and distill it. You can’t take everything on, it would be chaos, it would be impossible.
BC: I do care. I don’t want to hurt people. I’m pretty convinced that’s not my intention as a writer, ever. … I don’t know if I’ve ever taken something out because I thought it would be problematic for a person. I’ve done the work to change it enough so that there’s some tempering. But I only take things out when they don’t assist or they’re not in service to art, to a piece of literature. That’s the only reason I take something out, because it weakens the story, not because somebody may be hurt.
MD: It has to serve the narrative or the idea or something. … I think it’s sort of a process of bargaining. Maybe as I’m writing along or revising, I think, ‘Okay, well I kind of stuck it to this person here, so I’m going to pull it back a little over here. It’s hard to say. I think people are really interested on a very pragmatic level, how do you handle it when you’ve written about somebody. You’ve written about family. Do you go to them and say, “Here”? Or do you wait until …?
BC: You know, it’s funny. I’d written about my father before he died, but he was so mercenary. After he died, I felt that I was able to do it exactly the way I’d wanted. My father was also extremely litigious and kind of ended up in a trailer park literally suing everybody, including my sisters-in-law. And I asked my sister-in-law to read the book to tell me if she was fairly represented and when I asked her if she thought I had been mean to Dad, she said ‘not mean enough.’”
You can also hurt people by leaving them out.
MD: You always find that the person you are most worried about is the one who never cares or who is flattered or really wants to be in it [your book]. The other thing you can do if you want to keep some people from suing is the small penis theory. You just write in a paragraph ‘small penis’ and they will never complain. It works every time.
BC: Which is weird if it’s your sister.
M: Even more … yes.
BD: How does that relate to working in fiction?
MD: I don’t really consider myself a fiction writer. I did write a novel and it was very much drawn from my own experience, and I think, there again, that was a novel that was very much based around a couple of ideas I had about socioeconomic class and geography and identity. I had made this very radical move from New York City to Nebraska and I had actually tried to write it as non-fiction because I did not consider myself a fiction writer and I had started writing memoir about this experience, and I wanted to touch on these issues that were pretty taboo, that had to do with a lot of stuff about class and money and the way people identified around that and sophistication, what does that mean? And I did not have the chops at that time as a writer to pull that off. It came across as really arrogant. I was not able to implicate the narrator, so I changed it over to fiction. I created this character who was not me at all, who was a television reporter—stuff I had never done. And I was able to make it a sort of comedy of manners. It was a sort of essayistic novel. And my agent said, ‘Don’t ever say that again.’ I was trying to save myself in a way, and people ended up being kind of offended anyway. But then again, they love it. That’s the thing. They’re kind of upset in the moment and then they are bragging about it.
I am more experienced and I am more confident as a non-fiction writer … so I try to figure out how to approach people and say, I want to let you know I did write about this experience and I’m not giving you the opportunity to change it, but I’m showing it to you.
BC: There are things I have not wanted to reveal about family members, and I use those in short stories. I distorted them to an extent and used them as springboards for all kinds of fabrications. … One does not always feel this way, but I think a lot of stuff that you feel not skilled enough to write about or hesitant to write about, it comes around, and then there are these incredible times when you discover, ‘Oh, I can use this.’ There’s a way in which [you] thought this was an idea that would never find its form, but it’s so fantastic when you realize it can in different ways.
MD: I think it’s also hard to write about something that’s still happening. We all get sort of tempted, ‘Oh, I’m in this really interesting situation and I’m going to write about it,’ and then you get frustrated because it’s not cooked yet. I think you have to get distance on something, not that you can’t try.
BC: There’s all kinds of tricky things that can come with mining your own life for material you don’t have clarity on, it’s too fresh, it’s too difficult, but I guess the cause for faith is that, as hard as it can be, reach a time when you can make sense of it.
MD: Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House … was a really hard book to write because I was literally writing up to now and I don’t recommend it. I had basically finished the book and then it was clear that my mother was going to die. And a lot of the book was about my mother. It’s very much about her. … My editor said, ‘You’ve got to rewrite the end of this book to talk about her dying.’ But she hadn’t died yet. So what do you do? I was literally sitting in her apartment, she was in hospice, she was dying, and I was like, ‘How do I write this?’ And it ended up being perfectly lovely. It’s not that it’s not true. It’s just that it’s not honest. … You’ve got to just wait.
What is your favorite memoir you’ve read and why?
MD: Tobias Wolff—in This Boy’s Life, the way he’s talking about something so horrible but in a way that you don’t have any, you don’t pity for him. That’s a real tour de force example of how to handle sensitive, upsetting material in a way that you have confidence in this narrator, and you trust this narrator as being an adult about telling this story of the child.
BC: There’s a sense that memoirists sit around sort of wallowing in unpleasant memories or pain, but one of the things that’s really fantastic about writing—it’s not easy, but boy is it fantastic—is that you can take all this inchoate, painful stuff and you start to make sentences out of it. And I think that’s its own reward, that you can make something clear that someone else can enter out of this weird morass of experience.