JJ Lee: 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, Charles Taylor Prize finalist JJ Lee reveals how he dealt with this thorny issue while writing The Measure of a Man.
What are the biggest challenges of writing about the people in your life?
Everyone wants to be the star and then they freak out when you dedicate whole chapters to them. Okay, that isn't how they feel but you see how out of control the situation is. I ascribe traits and feelings to them and they have no way of stopping me. It's an awesome responsibility that I am very comfortable abusing. But I do feel guilt.
Luckily, my family and friends know me very well and have always been enamoured by my knack for hyperbole, fudging, and easily accessed gullibility. I love the people in my life and I always see them as the smartest, most beautiful and most tragic. So their lives claim infinite attention from me and I always think their lives deserved to be shared.
That said, I worry I go too far and may harm my relationships with them. It never stops me but it does give me anxiety.
Where do you draw the line? Or do you draw a line?
I maintain an internal line. I never want to do harm. There is good in everyone.
Writing about your father, were you at all worried about upsetting your family?
I felt the most responsibility to my uncle, Jim, whom I am named after. My uncle is my father's older brother and the keeper of my father's earlier years. I wanted his approval the most and recently he gave the book his seal of approval.
Is there anyone or anything you wouldn't write about?
Yes. But I can't say who or what that is. Writing about them would impinge on their privacy. Some family secrets need to stay so.
Do you inform the person in advance that you are writing about them? Do you feel you have to get their blessing before proceeding? Why?
I believe everyone who is within reach of me knows I could potentially write about them. I tried to do the whole advance notification procedure.
For example, I spoke to my older sister, Tammy, about her role in the book. She asked me to change her name. Then I started writing her parts and forgot to change her name. Two weeks after the memoir came out, she read it and called me, "You said you were going to change my name."
"Yes, you did."
"Did you like the book?"
"So, we're cool."
"Yes. But why did you gloss over all the bad stuff in our childhood. You made it sound so nice."
So, you can see, it doesn't really work for me. Getting a subject's blessing has nothing to do with writerly concerns. It is a relationship thing. If there's love between you, you have the most important blessing. They accept you and ALL the things you do.
Are there certain details you will leave out of the person's story? Or do you think it's important to tell the whole truth, warts and all?
My problem is I put too many warts in. If I did edit out details, I could make everyone so awful no one would care to read. I think the most important obligation any writer has is to the reader. Sometimes it does boil down to full disclosure. Sometimes the obligation is weighted towards narrative structure.
Face it, life is a mess. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar. We can make planes fly and plan trips to Mars but we still can't make sense of ourselves. All books about human action create a lie of cause and effect, whether it's founded on psychology or poetic juxtaposition, readers and writers try to make order out of the disorderly nature of living. We grasp and grasp and beg for answers and fill the yawning gap between what has happened and how we feel and the darkness beyond with stories. There are stories we tell ourselves and there are stories we share to fend off the darkness. We gather around the fire of story.
My style of non-fiction is driven by the need to make life add up to something as best as I can. If I require big chunks of lumpy warts to make the story go, they go in, if the warts and all undermine story, what's the point of putting them in.
Don't get me wrong - the cognitive dissonance caused by inconvenient truths should always be embraced. However, if a certain detail is so unwieldy and potentially meaningless, I see no reason to include it. Writing to me is like dating. The work has to attract.
To wit, memoir writing is not a direct byproduct of memory. Memoirs are actually acts of remembrance. The memoir draws on the blocks of memory available to the writer. The writer must assemble from it a coherent telling, good enough to get the reader/listener from the first page to the last.
The tale will change with each re-telling. For example, everyone reads The Measure of a Man and assumes I am reconciled with my father's memory and his life as a father. But I'm still finding out things about my father and these details alter how I feel about him. All memoirs are static but our relationship to the past is constantly changing. Something is only as it seems for a while and then it's gone and you have to start over again.
JJ Lee is the author of the book The Measure of a Man and the menswear columnist for the Vancouver Sun. He also does a weekly fashion column for CBC Radio in Vancouver and has made a radio documentary on the social history of suits for CBC Radio's Ideas. Lee lives in New Westminster, where he works as a creative consultant for a design firm.
Photo credit: Melissa Stephens