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IN THE MINES, A Craft Essay on Creative Nonfiction by Linnie Greene • Cleaver Magazine
I. Towards a New Empathy A couple of years ago, Leslie Jamison and Francine Prose debated in The New York Times about whether or not it’s ethical to use your children as literary fodder. They discussed the demerits of transforming real life into words on a page in a pair of pieces titled “Is It O.K. to Mine Real Relationships for Literary Material,” and the conclusion seems to be this: that real people get stuck on the page, often one-dimensionally, trapped like mosquitoes in amber. I know a few real people I’d love to trap. For all of its hardships, writing’s appealing in no small part because it allows one to pin down an idea like a butterfly in a shadowbox, to memorialize whatever or whoever you find worth remembering, in whatever state you might remember them. That prick you knew it high school gets his comeuppance, even if it’s only to an audience of several Facebook friends or readers of a literary magazine. Tempting as it is to play God (albeit a fairly unimportant one, bound to the MLA Handbook), it was memoirist and poet Mary Karr who instilled in me an appropriate fear and reverence. In a piece for The Fix, she said, “Everybody I ever wrote about, including David [Foster Wallace], I talked with in advance and said, ‘This is what I wanna do.’… I wasn’t going to use his name, then after he died, I’d talked to him before he did it and included him enough that I was gonna give him a pseudonym—which he said he didn’t care about…” I puzzled over this in the back office of the bookstore where I was supposed to be doing other things. What do we owe the subjects of our work, especially those without masks? I’d always found Mary Karr brave for the way she broached her subjects, receiving the permission of her wild and alcoholic mother (with whom she’s reestablished a relationship).