Friday, October 19, 2007

Risky Business

We watched another one of the films from the list of movies writers should see. This one is called Almost Famous. The writerly message in this one was not about trusting and cultivating one's imagination like the message in Finding Neverland. The point of this film is one I chew on a lot as a creative non-fiction writer.

Almost Famous, described as a coming-of-age story, follows a young (15 year old) music journalist who has conned Rolling Stone Magazine into assigning him to travel with an up-and-coming rock band so he can write a feature story about them. The story takes place in the early 70s. The kid is precocious and is able to hang out with the band and all the groupies who are doing drugs and sex. The boy amazingly is able to maintain a sweet, rational distance from all that is happening. Somehow the screenwriters have managed to make him believable. He's really totally focused on the job of getting a good story and intent on getting an interview with the band's leader who keeps putting him off. Of course, traveling and living with the band on tour, he witnesses a lot that he could write about. I won't report the outcome of his journey on the chance that you want to pick up the movie and see it for yourself. (It's worth it if you have any connection to that time period or the music of the period.)

But the story, including the ending, brings up a lot for a creative non-fiction writer, and I include journalists especially feature writers in this category. For a writer, this movie is about the risky business of telling the truth. What is the truth? Do you tell the truth as you see it about your friends and family when you write? What about people you are interviewing? You spend time getting to know them during an interview or series of interviews and then you write their story. Is that the truth about them?

Let me tell you that William, the young man in this movie, confronted these questions and more, and I too have faced them, especially when I was writing my book. Recently one of my favorite writers, Alison Luterman, addressed this issue on her blog. Apparently, she wrote something on the blog that hurt someone's feelings. She stopped blogging for a week or so while she regrouped. Here's a snippet of what Luterman had to say after she returned:

There are things I haven't published, haven't put out there because they would be too painful to my family. I try to be careful, I try very hard. And I don't always succeed. Sometimes someone reads somthing I never thought they would, sometimes someone takes offense at something I said in a way I hadn't expected. I hate it that that happens, but what am I going to do? I'm not Mary Oliver, who writes about snakes and bears and fish. I usually write about opinionated volatile people, not unlike myself.

My goal is to be as brave as Luterman. I intend to be considerate but also honest, and I am clear that my truth is not always someone else's. Once when my dad was in the hospital at the end of his life, a social worker was asking me and my youngest brother about our family life as children. After about four or five questions, we burst out laughing, and I said to the interviewer, "Obviously we didn't grow up in the same household." How could we? I was the eldest and he five years younger. We were different genders. And there were a multitude of other differences that affected our experiences. Our truths were different. I remember this story when I'm trying to ferret out the truth of situation that I am writing about.

My grand-daughter made an astute observation along this line after reading the article about her family in the paper (see Easy Face). She recognized immediately that the writer's perception was not her experience of the family. Sure, it was a part of what she knew, but it wasn't the whole story. No writer can write the whole story, but that doesn't keep us from writing what we think we know.

It occurs to me that some responsibility falls to the reader here as well. Readers need to remain critically aware, as my grandaughter did; we all need to know that there are a mulitplicy of truths out there.

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