11/25/2010

Line in the Sand

When is a story your story to tell? When do you know that a story you've been given is one you can share?

I'm wondering this tonight because I have a story about one of my relatives, one I've heard before, but finally took the time today to ask the right questions, to find out the little details that make a story more complete. What year? What hospital in Spokane? How long did she stay? Did she take a train to Montana? Why did she go back?

I wanted to write it out here on my blog, but I haven't asked her if it's okay to write her story publicly. It's not a story she would write herself. I've asked her to, asked her to write all about her life, because it's a piece of history her family would like to know. She's tried, she says, would like to write it all down finally, but I know she doesn't actually write it out. I even gave her a journal about a decade ago to help her along but she would rather read about interesting things like the way scientists think the universe works. I can't fault her that, I guess, since it's hard for me to write about my life and it's what I'm learning to do right now.

Her story is one I think needs to be written, reflected on somehow. I could write it, I suppose, from the perspective of how her story impacted my life, but still, is that enough 'distance' to give me the right to tell her tale?

When someone's story intersects our own, when does the writing of it cross that line? And what's that line for? Morality's sake? Respect? Other writers have crossed that line, I think, writing about their families in unflattering ways, not caring what the individuals thought. "If you don't like what I wrote," they say. "Then write your own version." This sounds a bit bullying to me, but what is a writer to do? We don't grow up in a void or write in a perfectly objective way. We have to, at some point, involve someone else in our stories because memoir is as much about relationships as it is about meaning. Maybe memoir is really a bit of both, the making of meaning from the relationships we have. There's experience too, writing about experiences we've had, but these can be dry accounts if they lack the context of a relationship.

The part of my project I'm working on requires that I see myself and my husband as characters living a life where they don't know how things will turn out. I do. I know how things turn out in the end, maybe not what it all meant, but at least how it all ended up happening. I'm building a scene to show our relationship to each other and our lives, hopefully giving perspective on the choices we made. Working that scene on paper feels different that telling my relative's story. For one thing I was there and can speak to what, at least from my perspective, was happening at the time. I wasn't alive when my relative made her decisions, can only speculate on what she overcame within herself to make those decisions which really were quite uncharacteristic of her. She was a different sort of person during that time than when I knew her, more willing to take risk, more willing to just see what happened if she took advantage of an offer.

She speaks of that time with great fondness, proud of her accomplishments and a little amazed at herself for having the audacity to do the things she did far from home. She possessed a quiet sense of adventure I rarely saw when I was getting to know her, but there were glimpses here and there if I really thought about it.

That might be one way to get to that story, writing about how I approach adventure, what I was taught about thinking outside the box, and how that's reflected in her story.

Might be a cool thing to do.

I'm not sure that I've necessarily figured out what 'the line' is that I keep trying not to cross when I'm writing a personal story, but I see a bit better how I can take someone's story that intesects mine use it as part of a larger story that focuses on the relationship I have with them.