written by Kelly McMasters
In my small suburban backyard, there is an invisible line that separates what is mine from what belongs to my neighbor. This border recently became visible when the lawn was raked and seeded, creating a verifiable delineation. For most of the year, though, the line confuses my two small children, both in its invisibility and in my suggestion that they not cross it.
But no one is ever out there, they protest. Why would they care if we just made third base right there? These are good questions: I don’t know if the neighbors would mind us extending our border and temporarily claiming a bit of their unused space for ours because I’ve never asked. No one is ever around when we are outside. Sometimes I think: Let the kids play! The neighbors will never know! But that doesn’t feel like a satisfying answer, morally or otherwise. It would be easier, I think, if we just put up a fence.
I found myself wishing for a different kind of fence this summer while working on an essay. As I delved back years into my memory and recreated scenes on paper, there were moments when I questioned if something—a conversation, a context, a point of view—truly belonged to me. It is in my head, so is it mine? If the other person who shares that memory is not around to ask if they would care if I used it, does that make it okay to just tramp on across the line? And if they are around, and I do ask, and they say no—is that their right?
Much of creative nonfiction seems to come down to the act of claiming. Venerable British novelist John le Carré recently published a memoir called The Pigeon Tunnel. While a memoir from an esteemed 80-something author makes great publishing sense, a recent review by William Boyd in The Guardian [Link: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/sep/08/the-pigeon-tunnel-john-le-carre-review-memoir-autobiography?] interrogated why a memoir would follow so closely on the heels of what was a fairly exhaustive biography published about Le Carré just last year. He finds a hint in the memoir’s introduction: “A recently published account of my life offers thumbnail versions of one or two of the stories, so it naturally pleases me to reclaim them as my own, tell them in my own voice and invest them as best as I can with my own feeling.” The reviewer goes on to posit, “it must be very hard to read a 672-page version of your life where all manner of private matters – about your parents, upbringing, marriages, children, love affairs, arguments, mistakes, feuds, earnings and tax arrangements – are revealed to a reading public as a matter of historical record. I think anyone can comprehend the urge to say: well, it wasn’t exactly like that, it was more like this.”
But what if you are not a writer, and don’t have the tools or clout to revise what Boyd calls “the historical record”? How must it feel for the non-writing public who happen to be in the lives, either as sun or satellite, of nonfiction writers? Even when crafted with great care and tenderness, there is discomfort in seeing yourself reduced to a character on a page. The risk is even greater when the writer chooses territory with high stakes and fallout.
My children’s concerns about our yard are not based on legal issues—is this right?—but instead they question intention. We’re not hurting anyone, they argue. They won’t even know. When does the violation occur? When we step over the border, or only if we do something destructive while we are on their side? We share memories with people throughout our entire lives. The line often only becomes tricky when we publish—when we claim a memory as ours within the borders of a white page with black ink.
Until I committed my memoires to paper in that essay, I never questioned my claim on them—they belonged to the ether of memory, somewhere inside my brain, which made them mine. But in preparing to publish, I find myself wishing I could circle my memories with permanent ink, know that I have a right to them and how far those rights extend. When the lawn was newly seeded, it was easy for me to point and tell my children: here, this is the line. But now, as the seeds root and the bright green of the new grass fades, it is becoming harder to discern. So instead, we turn it into a game: we imagine there is a length of fishing-line stretched across our backyard, a tripwire that we will only know we’ve crossed when it is too late.