Why Do We Write About Others?

Rachel ZuckerOn November 6, Rachel Zucker, author of nine books, most recently a memoir called MOTHERs and a dual collection of prose and poetry called The Pedestrians, visited VT. I got to pick her up from the airport. This semester, she’s teaching two poetry classes at NYU, one of which is on “the long poem.” Based on our conversation, I’ve added some books to my “to-read” list: Jane by Maggie Nelson and The Descent of Alette by Alice Notley. We talked about students and teaching and MFA programs and her kids. It was intimate. She admitted that one of her sons recently got her a little bit into football. I admitted that I like Taylor Swift.

The craft talk she gave discussed the ethics of putting other people in your work, people who are alive and close to you. People you could potentially hurt. Zucker began her talk with this: “It’s really hard to write a good poem in which people don’t appear at all.” Zucker is not worried about keeping people out of her work in order to protect them (in fact, the poems she read later in the evening at the reading at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at VT were all poems that at some point she “got in trouble” for writing), however she still grapples with the ethics of writing about others, still finds this discussion necessary.

The talk was framed around a series of about ten photographs Zucker showed in a powerpoint presentation. The photos were various portraits of people in various contexts; some the photographers took with the subject’s permission and others without, some were people the photographers knew and some were strangers, some were shot from a distance while others were taken very close up.

She first asked for general reactions to the photos. At first, I was unsure about how this related to writing. But her whole point of talk goes back to a question she posed: “What is your relationship to your subject matter?”

Throughout her talk she asked other important questions, too. Why do we write about others? To mark the passage of time? To critique something? To change the world? What kind of poet are you? What kind do you want to be?

I’m not sure about my own personal philosophy on the ethics of what Zucker discusses. My instinct is to write whatever I want–that my stories are my stories, that my experiences are my experiences, that my truths are my truths, so then it shouldn’t matter how I portray others in my work. I would even add to that as long as my intention is not to harm others in the process, writing anything I want to is fair and just.

But it gets confusing. What if you harm others without meaning to? I struggle with this in the context of writing about my father, which I’ve generally avoided, though when I’ve done it, have thought, I can’t send this out for publication, this would kill him. I have a lot to say about my coming out experience, and that experience was a bit traumatic for me because of my father’s reactions (i.e. he told me that if I acted on my feelings, I would go to hell, etc.). This is one part of my honest experience. But I personally think this makes my father look like a monster, which he isn’t.excerpt

I go back to Zucker’s question: “Why do we write about others?” I feel compelled to tell my story for a few reasons. The first is selfish, though not malicious. My relationship with my father is so complicated that the best way for me to understand it is to write about it. Someone might tell me to go ahead and do that, but keep it to myself. Why publish it? Another reason is to help others in situations like mine. To show that you can come from x kind of family, but still lead a happy, y kind of life. Another reason is for more queer presence in literature. I think one way for queerness to be considered less “weird” by the mainstream is to inject itself into the world and one way to do that is via literature. I want to show that much of my father’s behavior in response to me being queer is not acceptable and perpetuates homophobia and general hate. So maybe I think I CAN change the world. But should I at the expense of my father? I honestly don’t know.

-Lisa S.

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