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Tread Softly

Friday, November 28, 2008 by Marianne Elliott

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Today was my first day back in my new writers heaven. I wrote 2500 words which makes up the second half of a brand new chapter one. The new chapter marks a relatively dramatic shift in the shape and even the style of the book. 

Many weeks ago now I got an email from a friend in Kabul. She had been reading my posts here as I began to share the early attempts at writing Zen and the Art of Peacekeeping and she was worried. She was worried because if I carried on as I had been going then before too long I was going to arrive at a point in my story where events would transpire that involved her and she really didn't want those events to be retold, even on this blog which is read by an increasingly small audience. 

Just before I got her email I had stopped posting my new writing here for very similar reasons. I had realised that I needed to give a lot more careful thought to how much of my story I planned to share in my book and how I would ensure that I didn't stray into the territory of telling stories that might hurt other people. 

So I wrote back to her telling her that I agreed with her – it was important to me to be really careful about the privacy of other people.I assured her that I had no intention of sharing any details of the particular she was referring to in this book. But I realised that I was going to keep hitting up against this problem.

I guess it is a common challenge for memoir and biography writers. I am at an advantage because earlier this year a good friend of mine (the wonderful novelist Rachael King of The Sound of Butterflies) had given me a copy of "Tread Softly For You Tread On My Life" by her father, the acclaimed historian and biographer Michael King. 

In this book King – to quote from the back cover – "considered questions which beset all intelligent writers and readers. What is compassionate truth? What does one owe to one's subjects – and to one's readers."

I'm grappling with these questions as I write, and as I do I am grateful to Rachael for her gift and to her father for his insightful and thoughtful essays on the subject. In "Biography and Compassionate Truth" he observes that a biographer (and I would argue, by extension, a memoirist): 

"aims at what writer and publisher Christine Cole Catley has called "compassionate truth": a presentation of evidence and conclusions that fulfil the major objectives of biography, but without the revelation of information that would involve the living subject in unwarranted embarrassment, loss of face, emotional or physical pain, or a nervous or psychiatric collapse".

When writing about Afghanistan I also have to beware of revealing information that could expose the living subject, or his/her relatives and associates, to danger. It is a difficult balance, as King himself describes well:

"The whole process is akin to tightrope walking. But the resulting tension frequently tightens one's narrative and increases its vibrancy."

I'm hoping that this holds true for my narrative, because it could certainly benefit from some tightening. But in the meantime I've decided to err on the side of caution and not post any more extracts here until I am confident that I have found the right balance. 

I still look forward to coming here to share my triumphs and trials along the writing process and any other great ideas that come along the way.

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10 Responses to "Tread Softly"

  1. John Mullis says:

    It is, as you say, a bit of a tight rope. A tension between telling the story and getting the therapy you, as an author, need to get by telling it.
    Perhaps there should be two books: Zen and the Art of Peacekeeping and ‘The private lift of a civilian caught up in the horrors of war’ with the second held back from publication till a later time?
    Salaam, Sebaha
    john

  2. sassy says:

    I get it. I recently started working on a book myself and am face to face with the same issue. But I’m sure that creativity can compensate for pure facts that aren’t ready to be unveiled. I’m looking foreward to reading your finished work !

  3. amy denmeade says:

    i’m sure that the mindfulness of your writing process will be reflected in the texture of the words you decide to put down on paper, in a very lovely way.

  4. Swirly says:

    This is something I struggle with quite often – how many intricate details of the truth do I share? It can get tricky, because in trying to make certain points or illustrate certain experiences, sometimes the messier bits and pieces need to be shown. An interesting challenge as a writer.

  5. Anne-Marie says:

    I completely understand where you are coming from. I work as a journalist on a regional newspaper, but my university training is in anthropology. Journalism says, Get the story at [almost] any cost. Anthropology says, Consider your subjects at [almost] any cost. I am always bumping against my anthropological side while I’m at work, and it causes me a lot of frustration. The fact that you are mindful of your duty to both your story and your subjects is a good thing. I’m sure that the further you get into your book, the clearer you will be able to see where the right balance lies. Good luck with it! Rangimarie, Anne-Marie

  6. Lubna says:

    Hello
    Good luck with the writing.
    Best wishes

  7. zooms says:

    I have immense admiration for you,it is true, I arrived a little late, but I am working my way from blogger, to typepad, to now, and learning so much. Thank you. In relation to treading softly, a documentary can be told as a fairytale, characters can be placed in imaginary lands, but the truth, in your telling, will out.

  8. homeinkabul says:

    I am missing you my friend. I hope the writing is going well and you are enjoying life. Myself, I am going through a hibernation of sorts, withdrawing my writing from the public for the very reasons you mentioned (even though I am semi-anonymous). I hope that the next time I publish, it will be in my own name.
    With love,
    HiK

  9. Di says:

    I am building a new website and have begun gathering interviews and while I had the instinct for compassionate truth, it was so good to write your quotes here in my journal. Thank you.

  10. Captain Cat says:

    Dear M – hadn’t stopped by for a while and just saw this. I hope you find a balance you’re happy with and that the writing is going well. I am certain you will deal with the difficult issues that you want to write about with care and respect. In the meantime, enjoy your life in NZ and let go of some of the more sad or difficult times.
    And I’m always here if you want to chat. x

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