Do I Own My Story? But What If It’s Also Your Story, and You Don’t Want Me To Tell It?

A thoughtful discussion of a crucial issue for most of us who write nonfiction about real people. Read the comments too.

Having come up through the feminist movement, written for feminist publications, and worked in a feminist bookstore, I know how important it is to tell our stories. If we don’t, our stories don’t get told. Taking their place in the public arena are stories about us told by others. At best these are incomplete; at their all too common worst, they’re self-interested distortions and outright lies.

At the same time, writing confers power, especially when it comes with access to a large audience. Some glibly say “Let the people I’m writing about tell their own stories,” ignoring that those people usually don’t have our skill, our will, or our access to print. This goes for journalists as well as memoirists, personal-essayists, and all of us whose writing involves real places and people. These are big questions, and they deserve better than glib, self-serving answers.

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zz hertzel Laurie Hertzel

By Laurie Hertzel

Like any good student, I sat in the front row, took diligent notes, and believed, for a while, everything my teachers said. As a young newspaper reporter, I had ambitions beyond daily journalism, so for years I attended as many workshops and seminars as possible, studying narrative writing, fiction, and, eventually, memoir.

“I own my story,” I obediently jotted during a memoir lecture—or words to that effect. “No one has the right to tell me what I can or can’t write.”

But when I began working on my first memoir, I realized that it’s not that simple. Yes, I own my story—that is, I have the right to tell the stories of my life.  But I don’t live in a vacuum, and in order to tell my stories I cannot help but tell the stories of others. Do I have that right? Do I have the…

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More About Song Lyrics

In a post a couple of weeks ago, “My Epigraph,” I touched on the subject of “fair use”:

Fair use” is a contested area. If you plan to quote other writers in your work, read up on it. I believe there is, and should be, a huge middle ground between “anything goes” and “consult a lawyer,” Do learn the lay of the land, because the cost of putting a foot wrong can be high. Word on the street for a long time has been “don’t ever quote from popular song lyrics without getting permission.” This has nothing to do with ethics and everything to do with the fact that the big music publishers have been zealous about defending their turf. Your use of two lines from a popular song may be fair by any reasonable definition, but it takes very deep pockets to defend it in court. Might often does make right, and it makes us jumpy too.

Note especially the sentence in bold. Here’s something better than “word on the street”: a link to novelist-blogger David Hewson’s October 23 blog post, “Never quote a rock lyric in a book unless you’re rich.” It’s his grueling first-person discovery of how permissions work in the music biz.

Do read through to the end. Musician Bruce Hornsby did grant Hewson permission to use a line from his lyrics, and all he asked in return was a signed copy of the finished novel. I like to think there are more Bruce Hornsbys out there, though perhaps they’re more often found in the less glamorous corners of the music world.

The real moral of the story is this: Assume nothing. Do your homework — especially when you’re dealing with lyrics.


My Epigraph

Discussion recently turned to epigraphs on an editors’ board I’m on (Editors Association of Earth — if you’re an editor and you’re on Facebook, check it out).

Academic publishers, it seems, are OK with epigraphs for books, and chapters of multi-author books, but they frown on epigraphs used for sections or even chapters of single-author books.

Self-publishers in some genres — how-to was mentioned — are apparently prone to excess in the epigraph department. They’re also prone to misquoting and sloppy sourcing. Given the number of erroneous and sloppily sourced quotations floating around the internet, this is not surprising.

Epigraphs may not be covered under “fair use,” the conventions that guide when it’s OK to use quotes and excerpts from a copyrighted work without the copyright holder’s permission. This was a surprise to some of us, including me. The argument is that epigraphs are not essential to a work the way, say, quotations from a book are essential to a review of that book.

Aside:Fair use” is a contested area. If you plan to quote other writers in your work, read up on it. I believe there is, and should be, a huge middle ground between “anything goes” and “consult a lawyer,” Do learn the lay of the land, because the cost of putting a foot wrong can be high. Word on the street for a long time has been “don’t ever quote from popular song lyrics without getting permission.” This has nothing to do with ethics and everything to do with the fact that the big music publishers have been zealous about defending their turf. Your use of two lines from a popular song may be fair by any reasonable definition, but it takes very deep pockets to defend it in court. Might often does make right, and it makes us jumpy too.

I’ve used epigraphs in some of my essays, one-act plays, and even poems over the years, without ever asking permission and without ever being threatened with a lawsuit. My works generally circulate in areas that aren’t bristling with lawyers, and the works I’ve quoted from are usually written and published by people whose approach to fair use is probably similar to mine.

The epigraph for my novel, The Mud of the Placewas different. I knew I had to get permission. Not for legal reasons, though novels do tend to travel further than essays, poems, and one-act plays, and I didn’t want the source of my epigraph to find out accidentally that I’d used her words. The big reason was that her words had inspired me to write the novel — which meant overcoming my fear of attempting anything longer than 40 pages.

The story: I live on Martha’s Vineyard. Much of what’s written about Martha’s Vineyard in books and the national press is incomplete, distorted, and even flat-out wrong. In August 1993, President Bill Clinton came here for a three-week vacation. I got to watch the national press corps and others swarming all over the island and getting it wrong wrong wrong. It was infuriating.

Paley TNY clip sm

From the May 16, 1994, New Yorker

The following May, a little squib leapt out at me from the Talk of the Town section of The New Yorker. What caught my eye was the painting of poet-writer-activist Grace Paley at the top. What changed my life were her words: “If your feet aren’t in the mud of a place, you’d better watch where your mouth is.”

It came in response to an interviewer’s question: Would she comment on the situation in South Africa? (Nelson Mandela had been released from prison only four years earlier.)

If only the journalists and novelists and travel writers who wrote about Martha’s Vineyard were that wise! For a while I kept fuming at them because they weren’t. Then it dawned on me: I’m a writer, and my feet are  in the mud of this place. If not me, who?

Paley’s words kept me going while I slogged through the mud, not of Martha’s Vineyard but of doubting the importance of what I was doing and my ability to pull it off. They gave the manuscript its working title and eventually its actual title and, of course, its epigraph.

The Mud of the Place finally made it into print in December 2008. Grace Paley had died of cancer on August 22, 2007. I regret to this day that I didn’t try to contact her during the years I was working on it, but, well, I just wasn’t that confident that I’d ever finish it or that it would ever see the light of day.

Once we entered the tunnel to publication, with definite light at the end of it, I knew I needed someone‘s OK. My epigraph didn’t come from one of Paley’s books. It was an off-the-cuff comment, and maybe something she would have revised if she’d had the chance? Not to mention, it had given my novel its title. Plus — well, Grace Paley’s words and example had inspired so many people over the years. I was one of them, and I wanted to acknowledge the debt. I located and contacted Nora Paley, Grace’s daughter and literary executor. I enclosed the clipping and told the story. I was thrilled when she said yes, go ahead.

So when anyone argues that epigraphs aren’t essential to a work, I shake my head and think, But sometimes they are.

My Characters, My Selves

The other day a writer-editor friend on Facebook posted a quote from Truman Capote: “You can’t blame a writer for what the characters say.”

An interesting discussion ensued. The first comment took issue with the word “blame.” So do I. But characters come out of a writer’s head somehow, even when they’re based on real people. I’m not my characters and my characters aren’t me, but whatever my characters do or say rises in my mind, travels down my arms, and is transmitted to paper or screen by my fingers.

“Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto,” as the old guy said — I’m a human being; nothing human is alien to me.

I’m not my characters, my characters aren’t me, but I’ve imagined them. I’ve brought them to some kind of life.

Creating characters is probably the weirdest thing about writing fiction or plays. It’s totally juju. Joan of Arc’s voices don’t seem strange to me. I sometimes wonder if I might stumble off the edge and forget that my characters are characters. What if I ventured into my fictional world and couldn’t find my way back?

Can writers create believable characters if we don’t have the seeds of those characters in our heads? I suspect not. Whether we dare acknowledge and nurture those seeds into fully developed characters is a whole other question. A character in my novel in progress is a man who has sexually abused his stepdaughter and may do so again. He’s not a viewpoint character. I don’t want to get into his head, and I’m not sure I could.

Actually, now that I think of it, what I’m really afraid of is that I can get into his head. This fellow has appeared in a couple of scenes already. He acts like a trial lawyer at the family dinner table. His wife steps gingerly to avoid triggering his temper. Hmm. I recognize this. I grew up with something similar. I learned from my father how to intimidate people with words.


That’s me on the right, ca. 1993, in rehearsal. I was playing a rather timid nursing-home volunteer. Words came out of my mouth in an English accent that isn’t mine. I wasn’t her, but we definitely had a connection.

Characters often do things that their creators would never do, and say things that their creators don’t believe, or wouldn’t say in public if they did. Do authors really hide behind despicable characters to say the despicable things they believe but don’t dare say under their own names? I’m sure it happens, but I’m equally sure that if you want clues to what the author believes, you have to look at the whole work, not just the words or deeds of one or two characters.

Good actors can be so persuasive playing despicable characters. They have to connect with some despicable kernel in themselves to be that persuasive. When they’re really persuasive, viewers may feel an unsettling connection with that despicable character. Writers both create the characters and watch them in action. That can be pretty unsettling too.

When a really horrendous act is reported on the news, a common response is “how could anybody do something like that?” Me, I’m immediately working out a hypothetical trajectory in my head: how did this person get from birth to the point where he (it’s usually a he, but not always) could do this terrible thing? Into the cauldron of my mind go whatever sketchy details are available and everything I’ve read, heard, or experienced about, say, war, poverty, hopelessness, anger, addiction, fanaticism, denial, the way that humans tend to get swept away by what the other humans around them are doing . . .

Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto. I’m a human being; nothing human is alien to me.

I’m still having a hard time with that abusive stepfather.


Reviewing Isn’t Easy

Most of my writing time over last weekend went into an 1,800-word review of a nonfiction book. Monday was the deadline, and Monday I emailed it in to my editor. Editors love it when writers deliver their stuff on time. Trust me on this. They also love it when writers turn in copy that’s well organized and properly punctuated. Trust me on that too.

I’ve done plenty of reviewing over the years, mostly of books but also of local theater performances and the occasional concert or album. Reviewing is hands-down the hardest writing I ever do, which is why I don’t do much of it these days. My other writing has pushed it to the side. I regret this because I think reviewing is important and because I’m pretty good at it.

Reviewing is important. An author or performer puts the work out there, and the reviewer enters into conversation with it — a conversation that includes not only the work and its creator(s) but also the potential audience for that work.

Perhaps most important, reviews let prospective readers know that a book is out there and whether they might be interested in it.

So a review is like PR — free publicity for the book?

In some ways yes, but in other ways very much no. What reviewers write can persuade people to buy the book, but we aren’t part of the production team. Our job is not to persuade people to buy the book or put it on their to-read lists. Our job is to help them make up their minds.

What distinguishes reviews from back-cover blurbs and other promotional copy is that reviewers come to the work from outside. We haven’t been involved in the writing, editing, publishing, or promoting of the book we’re reviewing.

So what’s a review anyway?

Good question! “Review” covers the vast territory between a blurb and the kind of literary criticism that appears in academic journals. A review can be short, long, or somewhere in-between. It can be written down or delivered orally. Usually it describes what the book is about, provides some context — for instance, mentioning the author’s previous works, if any, or recent publications in the same field — and offers some clues as to whether the book is worth your while or not.

Beyond that, it depends — on the reviewer, the review medium (radio, blog, webzine, newspaper, Goodreads, Amazon, etc.), and the intended audience.

My writer friend wants me to review her book. Should I do it?

No. A thousand times no.

Personally I think your writer friend shouldn’t even have asked you. She’s putting you in a terrible position.

Since you’re in that terrible position, ask yourself these questions:

  • Can I tell prospective readers what they deserve to know about this book before they buy it?
  • If I give my honest opinion about my writer friend’s book, will we still be friends?

Of course, if you decline to review the book, the friendship may hit the skids anyway — see what I mean about terrible positions?

If you’re the writer with a forthcoming book, don’t do this to your friends. If your friends write well and want to help out, enlist them to write jacket copy, press releases, and brief synopses for your website. If they’re published authors themselves or have other useful credentials, they can write one of those signed blurbs that appear on the back cover of a print book or in the opening pages of an ebook. No one expects these things to be written by an impartial reviewer.

So what’s “impartial”? When is it OK to review someone’s book?

Good reviewers think about this a lot. We discuss it with other reviewers. In many fields and genres, authors, editors, publishers, and reviewers mingle on a regular basis, in person and/or online. Many of us wear more than one hat. We know each other by reputation even if we haven’t actually met.

Smart authors and publishers, including self-publishers, keep an eye out for reviewers who would be a good match for their books. Authors, especially self-publishing authors, may contact prospective reviewers directly. It’s up to the reviewer to say yes or no, and saying no to someone you know is not always easy, especially when they press you to come up with a reason. (Note to writers: Please don’t do this. It’s OK to take no for an answer. Last month I reblogged this excellent post: “Author Etiquette for Contacting Book Bloggers.” Read it and pass it on.)

How close is too close to write an impartial review? Here are some recommendations. You’re too close —

  • If you’ve seen any draft of the manuscript before it was published. If the author is in your writers’ group or workshop or writing class, you’re too close. If you were a second or third reader, you’re too close. If you critiqued or edited the ms., you’re too close. Possible exception: If you heard the author read from the novel in progress and had no prior relationship with the author, you might not be too close.
  • If you have any professional connection with the publisher, paid or unpaid, staff or freelance. This goes mainly for small presses, independents, and self-publishers. With huge trade-publishing conglomerates and even mid-sized university presses, it’s easy to be several arm’s-lengths away from any particular book.
  • If you’re more concerned with the author’s feelings than with telling prospective readers what they deserve to know.

What about when a book you’re asked to review really sucks?

Forgive my bluntness here, but this is the elephant in the booksellers’ marketplace so let’s not pretend it isn’t there. Some books really do suck, and some of those sucky books are written by people we know and like. You shouldn’t be reviewing books by your friends even if those books are stupendously good and in the running for major awards, but what if you get roped in to reviewing a book that’s really bad — as in, you really don’t think anyone should be wasting their time and money on it?

If you’re working on assignment from a book blog or other review medium, and whoever made the assignment has no personal connection to the author, this usually isn’t too hard. Explain that you don’t think the book is worth reviewing. Ask for another assignment.

If you do know the author, it’s a lot more difficult. You can try procrastinating. Some authors will catch on: Endless procrastination translates into “I really don’t want to do this.” Others won’t. In such cases, if you don’t say something, one of those elephants is going to take up residence in your relationship with the author. Saying something is hard. This is why those elephants aren’t on the endangered species list.

There is almost no good reason to review a really, really bad book, especially when that book is a first novel or a self-published book. If it doesn’t get reviewed, the book will probably sink with nary a trace. This is the best scenario for all concerned, though they probably won’t see it that way. The big exception is when the bad book is written and/or published by someone from whom we’ve got good reason to expect better things. In these cases, readers deserve to be warned off.

Slashing a bad book to ribbons can be fun, but it can — and should — leave a very unpleasant aftertaste. Don’t do it.


UKL’s Challenge

We interrupt this blog to bring you an important message. Ursula K. Le Guin has been high in my literary pantheon for a very long time. The other night at the 65th National Book Awards, Le Guin was honored for her distinguished contribution to American letters. In barely five minutes she proved that her distinguished contribution continues. Her speech seems to be going viral. Good. It’s a challenge to writers, publishers, and readers. Let’s live up to it.

And here is The Speech, as transcribed by Parker Higgins and posted on his blog. He notes that the bits in parentheses were ad-libbed to the audience. Thanks!

Thank you, Neil, and to the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks from the heart. My family, my agent, editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as mine, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine. And I rejoice at accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.

I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.

Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship. (Thank you, brave applauders.)

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial; I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us, the producers who write the books, and make the books, accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write. (Well, I love you too, darling.)

Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.

I have had a long career and a good one. In good company. Now here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want—and should demand—our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.

Thank you.


Whose Story Is It?

I’m posting this to both my writing blog, Write Through It; and my Vineyard blog, From the Seasonally Occupied Territories. I love it when the two converge like this.

Earlier this week I read a blog post on “What Makes Cultural Appropriation Offensive?” Both the post, by blogger TK, and the ensuing comments are well worth reading. “Cultural appropriation” is hard to pin down. Cultural borrowing happens all the time. The only way to stop it is to shut everybody into a room with people who are culturally just like them. I hope we can all agree that this is (a) impossible, and (b) undesirable. So when does cultural borrowing become cultural appropriation? And why does it matter?

My enduring lesson in why it matters came in the early 1980s. I was just starting to publish my reviews and essays. I was also the book buyer for Lammas, the feminist bookstore in Washington, D.C. As both writer and bookseller I thought a lot about ethics and politics and especially the often shifty terrain where the two converge.

What brought cultural appropriation into sharp focus for me was Medicine Woman, a book by Lynn V. Andrews. Andrews, a white woman, claimed to have studied with “Native American” shamans and been initiated into their spiritual tradition. Medicine Woman was popular with white women, including white feminists, including customers of the bookstore where I worked.

Soon after it was published, Andrews’s claims were challenged by people intimately familiar with tribal spiritual traditions. These challenges, at least at first, were published primarily in the alternative press and journals of limited circulation. Andrews’s book was published by a big-name trade publisher. It sold very well. It won Andrews more book contracts and eager attendees for her workshops and lectures. Her audience comprised primarily white women who had no experience of “Native American spirituality” — a misleading phrase because this continent is home to many indigenous spiritual traditions — and in most cases didn’t know anyone who did.

Andrews had access to a mass audience in part because of her own color and class privilege, in part because her big-name publisher thought — correctly — that her book would sell, and in part because her followers didn’t really care if her tales were authentic or not. The aura of authenticity was enough. Medicine Woman would not have had the same cachet had it been published as fiction, which it most likely was. (For a thoughtful and well-documented discussion of this case and cultural appropriation in general, see The Skeptic’s Dictionary.)

Cultural appropriation often involves racism, implicit or explicit, but not always. It does always involve an imbalance of power, but the imbalance can be based on race, sex, class, region, nationality, religion, or other factors. Here’s an example of appropriation, or mis-appropriation, in which the people doing the appropriating look a lot like the people whose stories they’re presuming to tell. Maybe it will shine a little light on the whole contested matter of cultural appropriation or, as I like to think of it, “whose story is it?”

In the summer of 1993, President Bill Clinton vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard. I’d been a year-round resident for eight years at that point, long enough to know that the year-round island and the summer island occupy the same hundred square miles of land but are not the same place. He was accompanied not only by his family but what seemed like the entire national and regional press corps. The first family made some public appearances, but most of the time they hung out on a hard-to-reach estate near the south shore. They were here for three weeks.

This left all those reporters with a lot of downtime. To justify their salaries and expense accounts, they had to file stories, so they swarmed all around the island, seeing the sights, buttonholing everyone who didn’t look too touristy, and writing about The Vineyard. I saw some of what they wrote because friends around the country sent me clippings — this was before the World Wide Web, never mind Facebook and Twitter. Often a single story would be syndicated and wind up in several newspapers.

Paley TNY clip sm

From The New Yorker for May 16, 1994

This wasn’t exactly going viral, but it did mean that stories written by reporters who’d been here for a week or so reached many, many more thousands of people than anything that appeared in either of the Vineyard’s two weekly newspapers. At the time I was working for one of them, the Martha’s Vineyard Times. I was doing what most year-round working Vineyarders do in the throes of August: trying to keep my act together and praying for September to come PDQ. In a summer resort, September means sanity, or at least the semblance thereof. But in the national press the Vineyard was all about lolling on the beach; hobnobbing with the rich, famous, and influential at cocktail parties; and seeing the sights.

The following May, still fuming, I happened upon a small item in The New Yorker about Grace Paley, a poet, writer, and activist I much admired. It said, in part:

“Paley’s stories are local, in the wisest sense. If you ask her about whether she would write about what’s going on in South Africa, she says no. A character might comment on the situation, she adds, but ‘if your feet aren’t in the mud of a place, you’d better watch where your mouth is.'”

Grace Paley nailed it: “If your feet aren’t in the mud of a place, you’d better watch where your mouth is.” Not only did that become the epigraph of my first novel, it gave me its title and sustained me in the writing of it. It sustains me to this day: my feet are in the mud of this particular place, about which so much has been written by people who only skim the surface, so what the hell else should I be writing about?

mud cover logoAnd that, in a nutshell, is why appropriation, cultural and otherwise, is a problem. Stories have power. Stories told by those with access to education and, especially, to the mass media circulate far more widely than stories told by those who lack such access. Stories that the mass audience wants to hear, or what the editors and publishers in charge think they want to hear, circulate more widely than stories that make us uneasy. Stories told by those whose feet aren’t in the mud of the place all too often come to be seen as authentic, as more real than the real thing.