Shot Through the Heart

Friday, May 18, 2007
A post by our own Chynna Laird:--)

While being interviewed by Mary Rosenblum and fellow students at Long Ridge Writers' Group, one of the many questions I was asked was if I found it difficult to tell tales from the heart when the subject is so close. In other words, have I ever gotten flak from those in my narratives or stories who would rather I not share. I have.

What I told this person was if the story was one that needs to be told but it's too tender for the players in the story, she could simply write it as fictional or in third person so only those involved, if they read the piece, would know who and what the story was about. That way, the story can still be told but no real names are used. My opinion has always been if the story is one that needs to be told, and it's told in a tactful, respectful way, the raw truer version is usually best. People can relate to them better. They pierce the heart more directly. But...they can also open new wounds for those involved. Something I was reminded of this week.

One of the stories I have on my site in the Article Samples section ("He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother") sparked some emotion in my father. You see, my father missed out on our childhood after he and my mother divorced. He missed out not only because he was discouraged from being an active part of our lives but also by his own choice. When I wrote the story originally, I said he abandoned my brother, Cam, and I. He read the piece and was, understandably, I suppose, hurt by my choice of words. I felt so awful, I changed the graph to take out the word abandoned to spare his pain. Now I'm thinking....why did I do that?

There are different definitions of the word "abandoned". The version most of us think of immediately has my father packing up and shipping out leaving us to our own devices without even a goodbye. That's not what happened. I meant he gave up and surrendered his parental rights because the forces he fought against were too strong. He wasn't the only adult to have abandoned us - keeping the same definition I meant in mind - in one way or another. Still, in trying to explain this to him, he told me his side of what happened and ended it with "where the hell is the other side?". My stomach swirled as I edited every story to take out any such reference. But it left me feeling disloyal to my side of the story. I was changing my story to make other people who read it feel better. Would Ernest Hemmingway do that? Would John Grisham? Or any other good writer? I doubt it.

I left my stories edited. But I still think I can be true to my family, friends or other people and still be true to my story. It isn't my story if I change it to suit every person it may offend. I love my Dad. He and I have been able to bury the past and have become quite close. I have a lot of respect for him for being brave enough to share his side of the story with me - even the ugly stuff. And, I think, he respects me for being strong enough to use my gift of words to bring awareness to tough subjects. Perhaps I should just choose the "correct" version of the words I want to use.

So, to that wonderful girl who asked me about problems I've encountered telling inspirational stories, I say use the true, raw experience but select beautifully coordinated words to tell your tale. My father emailed me the next day to say he wasn't angry with me. I didn't know all his facts and he misunderstood my use of a word. But his ending advice meant more to me than he knows:

"You write well it provokes thought and that is a good thing. I am not miffed or upset please understand that. It is probably good for a writer to know how your work may affect others."

Thank you, Dad, for your beautifully coordinated words. And you are so right.

You can read Chynna's interview here.


Sue said...

What a super post, Chynna! As writers we can't always avoid hurting someone with genuine and "raw" experiences, no matter how many "beautifully coordinated" words we choose. But you and your father have built a bridge of understanding, and that's awesome!

Angela Mackintosh said...

Chynna, it's so wonderful that you brought this up... I just received the answers back from my upcoming interview with Diana Abu-Jaber and had asked the same question! She'd said a lot of what you said about the third person (can't give too much away here...) and it also made me think about my own novel I'm writing.

Similar to yours, I have some things that I worry will offend my father. Being on my own at twelve-years-old was hard...he didn't leave me, but he was never there. It's one of those things I always wonder about putting in. I know it will probably hurt him, and I know that he feels sorry now, but then again, I know this is my novel and I couldn't change it for the world. It's important to the story and the protagonist, plus...he already knows how I feel.

Overall, it's a hard decision for any writer to face...but you've given hope to me, and I'm sure, to fellow writers. Thank you.

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