Writerland, Chapter 27: Hurting the Ones We Love

Writerland is a newsletter from The Delacorte Review whose mission is to help writers tell the stories they need to tell.

There are reasons interviewing strangers is not fun. You are, after all, asking someone you do not know to tell you things that are often none of your business, and which, in short order, you will share with the world. The experience of asking a stranger to talk can carry all the discomfort of being fourteen years old and asking a crush on a date. What if they say no?

There are reporters who look forward to talking with strangers and delight in meeting new people. True, these encounters can be wonderful and illuminating experiences – at least when recalled after the fact.

How much better, the anxious reasoning goes, to be able to interview people you know. No awkward introductions. No worry that you’re being ghosted when emails and calls are not returned. Familiar people – especially those closest to you – are accessible, and access is something strangers can deny.

But interviewing loved, or even well-liked ones, comes with perils that make chasing strangers a far more appealing prospect.

Zenique Gardner Perry, a writer working on a story for The Review, had been making great progress on a difficult and painful piece about her family. Then she hit a wall. We had a meeting scheduled and Zenique was dreading it because she would have to tell me she had written nothing new. Writers live in fear of such moments because it suggests they are suffering from that most feared of writerly afflictions: “Writers’ Block.”

Familiarity with the symptoms makes them no less painful: you are stuck and haven’t a clue of what should come next and the longer it goes on – minutes feel like hours which feel like days which can feel like weeks – the more you are convinced that the game is over and you will never write another word for the rest of your life.

The problem with a self-diagnosis of Writer’s Block is that it places the emphasis on the writing, as if somehow finding the right word or turn of phrase will liberate you from its grip. But I’d suggest the cause has less to do with the writing, per se, than in knowing enough to allow you to say what you want to say in a way that conveys authority. Or in a quote generally attributed to Faulkner, but which may in fact have been said by someone else (if you know, please fill me in because for the life of me I cannot trace its provenance), to avoid having it said about your work “the man can write but don’t have nothing to say.”

Like many writers, Zenique assumed being stuck suggested a deficiency in her skills as a storyteller. But it took no time to see what was truly ailing her prose: she had questions that needed answering and until she got those answers, her writing would feel akin to moving the deck chairs on the Titanic. Maybe if I moved this paragraph here….

Zenique knew where she had to go to answer those questions, and that, she confessed, was what had her stalled: she had to ask people she had known most of her life and who were a phone call or text message away: relatives.

I suspect Zenique was hoping I could suggest a workaround. Sorry, but no. She sighed. Later she wrote to say that when she told her husband what she would have to do “he both face-palmed and laughed out loud before asking, ‘Are you sure???’ Lol.”

I’d seen this before. For the past few years I’ve taught a class in which students are asked to choose a photograph they find so compelling that it sets them off in search of the story in that frozen moment. Often, they choose a family photograph, which makes sense in that the image is of someone they need to know more about.

The reporting feels easy at first. No hunt for sources. No wondering if they will ever call back. You can begin with mom, or Aunt Sally or Cousin Fred.

Q-How hard can this be?

A-Just wait.

Several weeks into the reporting, with the predictability of swallows returning to Capistrano, come the first anxious emails: “my mom wants to know if I really need to ask about my grandma.” Or “my sister will hate me if I write about her.” Or “do I have to include the story of my parents’ messy divorce?”

Many students do forge ahead, staking a claim to the slice of their family’s story. Others, fearing the consequences, wonder if they can be granted a do-over.

Even if you take issue with Janet Malcolm’s famously dyspeptic take on journalists “preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse,” reporting does bring with it the risk of causing hurt and pain. And yes, subjects feeling betrayed.

It is one thing doing this to someone whom you may never meet again, though any journalist worth his or her salt should be prepared to face a subject upset with a story with one question: Was it fair? Not nice. Not flattering. Not a gratuitous hit piece. But fair.

With those closest to you it is not so easy, and not only because of all the anticipated rifts and awkward moments at family gatherings. It is the nature of the questions themselves, which are always going to be personal and revealing about others, living or dead, close to you both.

I know journalists who have written family histories, doing so with honesty and candor and with the full knowledge of the consequences of their decision to tell their story. And while not all of them have it within them to respond to familial criticism as one writer I know did – “if you don’t like it write your own fucking book” – those who wrote understood and accepted the risks.

Their relatives, from what I hear, still talk with them. And their colleagues respect them, knowing what it took to get the story, and that they did not pull their punches.

I do not envy Zenique for her task. But I know, because I have been in much the same position myself – and still am, in my own work – what must be done if she is to move to the next word, sentence, and paragraph and reclaim her story.

We write because we need to make sense of the world, and to do that we need answers. The work getting those answers is not for the easily discouraged nor for the faint-hearted. It is hard to have people angry at you. It will happen. And then, if you have been fair and honest and done your work with compassion devoid of sentimentality, you will be understood, and yes, forgiven.

Courage, Zenique.

The Delacorte Review has just published its first print issue.

While our stories are still available online, we had come to see that despite years of predictions about the demise of print, there is something remarkable about words on a printed page bound by covers.

Why does print still flourish in a digital world? Theories abound: You can hold it. You can feel it. You can give it as a gift. You can put it on a shelf. You can read it without distraction.

But is there something more -- a quality to print that transcends the tactile? Is it, in its own way, a miracle?

With this issue we are joining the conversation about the eternal power of print. We hope you enjoy this issue, which is available through Amazon and that if you do, you tell a friend.

Many thanks.

Nothing good ever came from writers punishing themselves. We know writing is hard. We’re here to show that it doesn’t have to be torture. The Delacorte Review Newsletter comes out every other week. Subscribe to get full access to the newsletter and website. Never miss an update.