Sunday, February 11, 2007

The moment of betrayal

But at some point I had to wonder: where is the moment of betrayal? When the words hit the page? When that page is published, or produced? Or earlier, when it's in the mind of the writer? In the moment the writer thinks, regarding her brother's fury at vivid childhood slights, a sister's anguish over losing weight, a friend's dysfunctional relationship with the boyfriend who hits on everyone in sight, Hey, I can use that? Is it the moment when the fabric of another person's life, at the seam where it meets the writer's own, becomes material?

You can't participate in a relationship you're mining; you're observing from the shoreline, crouched, watching for the bits of gold, careful not to let your feet get too wet. You test dialogue by inserting provocative bits into real conversation, you transcribe real conversation back into a fictitious character's rambles--either way, honest communication between people ceases to exist.

Perhaps writers who draw from their lives simply pay the price of an emotional distance in their relationships. Because we're too busy taking notes.

--Tara Ison, "The Names Have Been Changed to Protect the Innocent," Kenyon Review, Fall 2001

Coming Monday--an interview with Tara Ison. In the meantime, read her review of Jane Smiley's latest, Ten Days in the Hills.


  1. David Sedaris has a funny bit about this topic in his book 'Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim' - I wonder what it would feel like to read a friend/family member's book and recognize some aspect of your own experience within, especially if it was a negative one.

  2. We have that Sedaris and I've been holding off on reading it for some reason. Guess I need to quit saving it.

    Robin Hemley's memoir Nola deals with that subject to a great extent--his mother's a writer, he's a writer, his sister (who died young) was a writer. Who gets to shape their lives into material?

  3. Great excerpt!! I think Tara Ison touched on a great issue. IMO, when I write, I immerse myself in the world that I am creating and do not give much, if any, thought to who it might affect. Only when my husband pointed out that something I wrote reflected on our lives did I realize how much of reality I put into my fiction. And when I saw how offended he became, even when I tried to justify my actions, I had to step back an analyze *where* the words came from and what they meant to the people in my life.

    Oooh, I have the feeling that this could become a heavy subject for many writers. Maybe someone should write a book on the outcome of a book they wrote that was interspersed with real-life subjects??


"I don't believe in ghosts, but I see them all the time."

Sherman Alexie cancels book tour for memoir about his mother.