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Carmen Aguirre: Where do you draw the line?

In honour of the upcoming deadline for the CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize, we're asking writers in the genre about how they distinguish between public and private. Today, Canada Reads: True
finalist Carmen Aguirre reveals how she grappled with this while writing Something Fierce.
What are the biggest challenges of writing about the people in your life?
The biggest challenge of writing about the people in my life is my fear that I will hurt them. Then I remind myself that I am not writing an exposé of those around me, rather I am writing a  memoir, which is a completely subjective interpretation of events that may or may not have happened the way I remember them.

Where do you draw the line? Or do you draw the line?
I draw the line at giving away personal information about their lives. By including them in my memoir, I'm talking about my life and my relationship to those who appear in the book, as opposed to their lives and their personal histories and relationships with others. When I have to write a difficult passage that involves someone in my life, in which they may not look so good, I ask myself: what is my intention here? Am I trying to make myself look good by putting them down? Where am I coming from? Am I still angry at this person and therefore trying to publicly humiliate them? If the answer to these questions is yes, I stop writing the passage and start again. Also, as much as I don't want to make anyone look bad, I also make sure that all the characters are complex, and I am not afraid of creating portraits of those around me that show my perception of all their sides.

If you are writing from a place of fear (of being disowned, disliked, by those who may appear in your book), you should not be writing nonfiction.

Writing about the Chilean Resistance in Something Fierce, were you at all worried about getting people in trouble? Was it stressful?
Yes, I was very worried about getting my mother in trouble. I was worried that I would get myself in trouble and that my young son (I am a single mother) would be left without a parent. It was very stressful and I lost a lot of sleep over it. But I decided to write it anyway.

Is there anyone or anything you wouldn't write nonfiction about?
There are some family stories that I wouldn't write nonfiction about until certain people have passed away.

Do you inform the person in advance when you are writing about them? Do you feel you have to get their blessing before proceeding? Why?
I informed my immediate family, the man I call Alejandro, the woman I call Luisa, the woman I call Dalia, The Cousin, and the basketball player that I was writing Something Fierce. I did not inform all my other relatives. I felt that I had to get my mother's blessing and the man I call Alejandro's blessing before proceeding. The main reason was safety issues resulting from telling the story.

Are there certain details you will leave out of the person's story? Or do you think it is important to tell the whole truth, warts and all?
Yes, there are many details I will leave out of other people's story. Anything that is too personal. And it is up to me, the writer, to trust that I can tell the difference between what is too personal and what is not. I tell my whole truth, warts and all.

If you want to be nice, do not write nonfiction. You need to be ruthless with your truth and ultimately not care what others think.

Carmen Aguirre is a Vancouver-based writer and theatre artist who has worked extensively in North and South America. She has written or co-written over 18 plays, including The Refugee Hotel, which was nominated for a Dora Mavor Moore Award. Aguirre has 60 film, TV and stage acting credits, including the award-winning Quinceanera. Something Fierce is her first book.

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set count down final date: 11/01/2014
set count up final date: 11/01/2014
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