Navigating the Truth, Part II — Moral Dilemmas: A Guest Post by Leslie Hsu Oh

Leslie Hsu Oh teaches creative writing and business communications at the University of Alaska Anchorage.  Her essayBetween the Lines” was listed as a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2010. She will be teaching a workshop called “Truth or Dare: Nonfiction Workshop” from Oct. 7-9.    In this course, you’ll examine ethical dilemmas that poets, fiction, and nonfiction writers successfully navigated in their critically acclaimed nonfiction.  You’ll  also write and workshop pieces that you might be afraid to publish.  Register today!

At the Fall for the Book Festival, Darin Strauss, who won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Half a Life, came down hard on Frey too.  As a novelist, he said he gets really upset when another novelist plays dirty pool.  After taking a sip of water, he shared a secret with the audience.  Sometimes novelists who can’t sell their novel might try to sell it under the label of nonfiction.  Although, he had no idea why they would want the microscopic scrutiny that a memoir invites.

I had a special interest in what Strauss had to say because Dani Shapiro reviewed his book for the Times and recommended it at the 49 Writer’s Tutka Bay Retreat.  Shapiro said, “What is truly exceptional here is watching a writer of fine fiction (Chang and Eng was followed by the novels The Real McCoy and More Than It Hurts You) probe, directly, carefully and with great humility, the source from which his fiction springs.”

Strauss confirmed this at his reading. “Yeah, I am a novelist.  Not only that but I don’t read nonfiction a lot so even though I have been writing about this all along, I will never write memoir again.”

He lowered his voice and said, “It’s strange for a fiction writer. If you write a novel, people don’t ask personal questions about your life.  And if people email you it’s generally, I liked it or didn’t like it. Not, here’s my terrible story please tell me what you think or how are you doing?  Have you spoken with Celine’s parents about the book?  But I’m not complaining.  I actually find it moving and the emails and letters I receive from nonfiction people are much more gratifying than the letters you get as a novelist.

The audience laughed.  When things quieted down, he asked, “Any more questions?”

Someone asked, “So, did you tell her parents about the book before it got published?”

Strauss answered that even though the parents of the girl he accidentally killed did sue him years ago, he didn’t want them to find a copy of the book at a bookstore.  He wrote them a letter, but never heard back.  He said, “The simple act of Googling them and writing the letter was hard—harder than writing the book.”

Some authors like Augusten Burroughs did not consult with the parties he wrote about and therefore got sued.

Strauss did not ask for permission from his family either; however, his mother though upset at first, “eventually came to accept (and even enjoy) it.” Mary Karr asked for permission from her family before writing her memoirs.  Karr said that she would not have written her memoirs if either her sister or mother opposed.  If only we all had a mother like Karr’s, who told her daughter, “Hell, get it off your chest…If I give a damn what anybody thought, I’d have been baking cookies and going to PTA.”

In my workshop starting October 7, we’ll talk about some of the moral dilemmas in your nonfiction.  Would you ask permission from the people you write about?  If they do not give you permission, would you write or publish it anyway? If they gave you the green light, would you show them a draft?  If they had corrections to your draft, would you make them?

Strauss received a correction from his mother after the book came out.  She claimed she attended Celine’s funeral.  He said, “I considered changing this for the paperback, but I didn’t: simply because I didn’t know if my mother’s memory was less fallible than mine, and since it’s a book about MY memories, I decided to stick with what I remembered.”

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