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Monday, December 31, 2007

an apology and a clarification

A few weeks ago, I wrote about dialogue and posted excerpts from two writers whom I think do dialogue exceptionally well: Yusef Komunyakaa and Cheryl Strayed. But then I went on to say that Cheryl Strayed was an unlikable narrator, and Cheryl Strayed actually read the post.

I hurt Cheryl’s feelings, and that wasn’t my intention. I actually meant to compliment her, but how could she see the compliment in my post when I was so flip?

I wrote to Cheryl, apologizing. I felt horrible, and I needed her to understand that I’m actually a huge fan. I’ve used her essays “Heroin/e” and “The Love of My Life” in my teaching, and I don’t teach writing unless I think the writer is talented, and that my students will learn from the piece.

What I really meant when I used the word “unlikable” was that it was difficult for me to relate to some of the things she went through and some of the choices she made. (You should read both “Heroin/e” and “The Love of My Life” because they really are excellent essays. Both were chosen for The Best American Essays series.)

Cheryl and I exchanged a few e-mails, and she was very gracious. One thing that came out of our exchange was how important it is for writers to be honest. Cheryl said, “I think the only way you can write literary nonfiction well is to be honest. Actually honest.”

I totally agree. I’ve tried to write a book that sometimes makes me look bad. I write about things that many people don’t want to talk about or think about. My goal is to be honest. I guess this is why I feel so bad about calling Cheryl “unlikable.” She’s doing exactly what I hope I do in my writing, and my earlier post makes it seem as though I am discounting her. I’m a writer and I should be more careful with my words.

The whole exchange made me want to clarify something about this blog: I’m not interested in trashing writers, especially women writers writing about motherhood. There are enough people out there discarding and marginalizing this kind of writing. My goal with this blog is to spread the word about great writing, writing that touches me in some way, writing that I can’t put down, writing from which I learn something.

So, I apologize to Cheryl Strayed and I’ll be more careful with my words from now on.


kristen said...

You are brave and honest to post about this and I know it must have been difficult. We all write things at times that we wish we could rephrase or take back completely, but owning up to it? That's the hard part. Sending a hug and a warm wish for a Happy New Year.

Anonymous said...

I respect you for posting this. Happy New Year.

As a new writer with unsure footing, I am encouraged by your post to keep going. Thanks,

Happy New Year!

*camerashymomma* said...

i also have much respect for you for posting this. it's easy to have slight misunderstandings but the repair is what is crucial. and this post shows that.

sometimes email or any type of written text can be deceiving because you can't always get a sense of tone or emotion (without the ! or? or* ) if written or read in a hurry (or written or read in a certain frame of mind too)

anyway, i think your blog is a wonderful site for any writer, woman, or mother. and especially wonderful for a woman writing about motherhood!

happy new year.

Lisa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lisa said...

I found your blog via One Hand Typing and this post and the one that precipitated it had a profound impact on me. I posted and then deleted my original comment because I think I inadvertently expressed my thoughts on the same subject in a way I did not intend. A narrator or fictional character who does things that are likely to be considered flawed or unlikeable is tricky territory, but those are stories that typically resonate with all of us because we're all flawed. The writer who takes this on can only be successful by approaching the work with naked honesty and incredible courage. Now I want to check out the author's work too, so thank you for using her fantastic prose to illustrate your original point on great dialogue. This is a great blog and I look forward to visiting here often. Happy New Year and kudos for the courage to share this misunderstanding.

Ines said...

Dear Kate, Well, I for one did not think that you saying that that author was "unlikable" meant anything more than what you explained later. In fact, it never occurred to me that you were implying something bad about her writing or her. Why would you then post and recommend her writing? I did however, notice Cheryl's comment and wondered. Thank you for writing more about it. Even though I don't believe that anyone can hurt anyone else's feelings. That is our job. We are the only ones that can hurt our own feelings. May the new year bring us more understanding and less misinterpretations.

Amanda said...

Kate, I never thought that your commentary was an insult to the author. You posted something beautiful of hers and contemplated the honesty of a writer's voice. It's clear from your writing and reflections that you constantly think about this subject of like-ability and its potential implications for the reader and writer; it's clear that, to you, a narrator can be complicated - good and bad and everything in between. A narrator can and should be real. It seemed to me that this is part of what you were saying, and perhaps the author jumped to conclusions a little too quickly, as anyone might whose work was being scrutinized. But you've never been anything but generous about writers on this blog. It's weird to write a blog and open yourself up to criticism in this particular way. One time someone told me that my writing made her want to puke - but this was an isolated comment from a stranger, and I had one day of feeling sorry for myself before I decided I better suck it up if I really want to be a writer. I'm impressed, actually, by the respect that I've seen in the literary blogsphere. The fact that you were open to conversing with the author about something that simply rubbed her the wrong way speaks volumes about your capacity to rethink what you have thought or said. But I hope you didn't let it bother you too much.