I have been reading Pat Conroy’s book, The Death of Santini, the memoir of his tumultuous family life and his abusive father. Pat Conroy has been on a lifelong mission to exorcise the demons of his childhood since he first started writing almost four decades ago. His breakthrough novel, The Great Santini, was made into a feature movie (1979), starring Robert Duvall cast into the dubious role of his father (referred to as the Great Santini). Although a work of fiction, the story was as real and vivid to Mr. Conroy as any autobiographical work.
As I read Mr. Conroy’s book, I sometimes feel like a witness to the very personal, exposed, and train-wrecked lives of his family. I almost have to look away from all the emotional gore. If you’re familiar with Conroy’s writing, you will know the absolute elegance with which he writes. He is a master at weaving stories and almost a poet with his words. His books are a treat to read, and his writing is raw and emotional.
But I'm not going to write a book review today. What all this really brings to mind for me is a question: Just how honest and naked do you get in your writing? On one hand, stripping down to our honesty skivvies is what keeps the writing compelling, authentic and resonating for a reader.
On the other hand, however, is the dilemma for memoirists and essayists, those of us who write blog posts: How naked do you allow your family, friends or lovers to be in order to tell your story? What is your ethical obligation to them? Is there one? To what degree do you strip them down in the name of disclosure and honesty?
Sometimes, after a particularly grueling chapter in The Death of Santini, I wonder how his sisters and brothers must feel about his work, or the lovers and ex-wives he’s named (no pseudonyms here). When The Great Santini was published in 1976, it about ripped his family apart. His father was exposed as a mean s.o.b, and although he fervently denied the truth of Pat’s story, the shadow never lifted. In this current book, Mr.Conroy is no less ruthless in his description of his youngest brother’s suicide, his beloved mother’s flaws, and the tenuous and nasty relationship he has had with one of his sisters. With equal honesty he cuts to the quick of his own flaws with merciless skill.
From a writer’s point of view, this kind of honesty can be very spiritually and emotionally healing—a letting of emotional poison that has festered in the heart. From a reader’s point of view, it makes for scintillating and titillating reading, or may even allow for their own self-examination through the writer's story. From the family’s, ex-spouses’, friends’ and lover’s point of view though, it may be a nightmare of biased truth. No writer of personal information can tell a truth that is absolute; it is always brought through a human sieve of emotions, perceptions and interpretations.
How much truth is appropriate? Do you seek permission to write about family, or stick defiantly to the belief to never seek permission to tell your story (it is, after all, yours). What is the ethical responsibility or is there one?
Next time you read an essay, memoir or tell-all blog post, keep in mind these are all questions every writer has to answer.
How do you answer them?
More from living