AWP Dispatch: Telling Other People's Stories

Another good recap from Lighthouser (and Cheap Like Me founder) Susanna Donato:

 The best takeaway from this session: The sense that writing does matter, that it can have urgency and relevance despite its perils.

Also, seriously, you really should silence your cell phone. Even Beard's phone rang, followed almost immediately by about 20 others.

The panel for this session was outstanding and offered powerful insights:

· Helen Benedict is a novelist and nonfiction writer who teaches journalism at Columbia University. She spoke primarily about her book The Lonely Soldier, about Iraq War female combat veterans.

· Stephen O'Connor also teaches at Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence College.

· Lis Harris for many years wrote for New Yorker magazine, teaches in Columbia University's MFA program, and spoke primarily about her work crafting a book about several generations of two families, one Israeli and one Palestinian.

· Jo Ann Beard teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and spoke mainly about the process of writing her essays "Undertaker, Please Drive Slow" and "Werner."

· Dale Maharidge also teaches at Columbia University. He won a Pulitzer Prize for And Their Children After Them, a revisiting (with photographer Michael Williamson) of the family subjects of Walker Evans' and James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

The pleasures:

1. You get to interview all kinds of people and ask questions that would be rude in real life. You get to turn real people into characters, making real stories out of their lives. You get to triangulate the essence of character. (O'Connor)

2. Interviewing her soldiers was an "exhausting and really moving experience." (Benedict) But ultimately, also very rewarding; she said she has heard from female soldiers who thanked her and told her they had thought they were the only ones experiencing what they did, until they read her book.

The perils:

1. Your subjects are real. They have their own ideas and tell their own stories regarding their lives. There is lots of repetition; there are boring times and unnecessary characters. They have feelings, and they have rights to privacy, dignity, their naiveté, their illusions and their ignorance. (O'Connor)

2. Feeling guilty. Many of the writers mentioned this sense of guilt about stealing or exploiting subjects -- or that subjects would feel the authors had done so.

3. Time passes before publishing, and sometimes subjects change their minds or opinions about the work. In Benedict's case, she became a trigger for her subjects' PTSD. She justified the work, believing that these stories are extremely important for us to hear, but realizes that she is not the one paying the price for the subjects' revelations. "I hurt some of them. I feel the work is justified, but it doesn't sit easy with me," Benedict said. One subject reported, "It's me, but it's not me; it doesn't seem like me, but it's the truth."

4. Locating cooperative subjects can be a challenge. Harris described her struggles to find two families she could write about, eke out the time to visit them between school vacations … and then start over when one family melted down three years into the project.

5. Being certain you have legal permission matters. Maharidge was sued by one source, but saved by his photo release. Other authors reported that sources will not always sign a release, but if they clearly agree to being told that the writer will use the material in a book at the beginning of a taped interview, that "release" will generally hold water, in legal terms.

Susanna Donato

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