Writing materials

Sarah Sentilles talks about writing about people you know ‹ Literary Center

A version of this essay first appeared in Lit Hub’s The craft of writing newsletter—sign up here.

What does it mean to write about another person? How do we do them justice on the page? And if you are wrong? What if it wasn’t your story to tell? To navigate this difficult territory, I developed a series of questions to guide me. It’s a kind of ethical code, or a horizon towards which I sail. I offer it to help stimulate the development of your own code. I’ve also included some write prompts to help you through the process.

What stories block me and why?

A lot of writers I work with who complain about being “stuck” are often embarrassed by a story they’re afraid to tell. This unwritten story has become a roadblock that hampers their creativity, holding back other stories that might sink. Sometimes writers are afraid to tell a story because there is someone they are afraid to write about. They fear that the person will be angry with them or even hurt them. Other times, writers worry that writing about that person is a violation. The first fear is physical; the second is ethical.

In Write without a parachute, Barbara Turner-Vesselago encourages writers to head to whatever material feels loaded, to pick the story that “you’re most afraid to write about.” She calls it going “through fear.” Me too, I think it’s important to write the stories that scare you. First write it as if no one will ever read it (because maybe no one will). You can address your ethical concerns after this first draft.

First, here’s a writing prompt I learned from Australian writer Louise Allan: Someday someone should tell the story of . . . Write it in the third person, remotely, and see what happens.

When is refusal a form of agency? When is it an obstacle?

One of the challenges when writing is discerning when your refusal to write about something is an act of assertiveness and when it’s an obstacle, blocking other stories that want to pass.

I used to think that fears of telling a certain story were just feelings that needed to be overcome and written down. “Just write it down,” I told other writers. “You don’t have to share it with anyone.”

But a writer transformed my way of thinking about this resistance. She experienced trauma at a young age. She couldn’t refuse what happened to her then, she told me, but she can refuse to write about it now. She understands his refusal to be a kind of agency. She takes back the power that was denied to her in her childhood. She says, Nope.

With this writer and his rejection in mind, I developed another writing prompt: I’m not gonna tell you…

Do I show my failures?

My mentor in theological school, the late theologian Gordon Kaufman, used to tell me that the most ethical thing we can say is, I may be wrong. Admitting you might be wrong doesn’t mean you can’t stake your life on your beliefs, but it does mean you can’t kill someone else for them.

I try to make visible on the page when I’m wrong, at least the mistakes I see now. (I’m sure there are many more.) Care of strangers, I wrote about my changing relationship with the mother of our adopted daughter; how, at first, I wanted her to disappear because I wanted to keep her child. I had to learn that loving our adopted daughter also meant loving and supporting her mother. I had to learn how limited my heart was. I had to let love grow.

Here is a prompt designed to expose errors: Find a passage you’ve written that doesn’t quite work. What is missing ? What is not said? Who is not seen? How did you misunderstand? Who did you misunderstand? What mistakes have you made? What did you do wrong?

Am I making room for transcendence and uncertainty?

I am a theologian by training, and what I took away from that education was a belief in transcendence – not in the idea that there is a being (God) who is transcendent, but in the idea that there is a part of everyone that is elusive, resistant, unknowable, mysterious, free. There is always more to everything – every tree, river, refugee, child, prisoner – than what we think we know, than what we write. How do you make room for the people you write about to overtake and disturb the language you use? How do you let your characters be more than you say they are?

How do we show transcendence on the page? For me, it is both a formal and an ethical question, and it motivates my interest in craftsmanship. I think now of my one-year-old son and how he struggles to reach for something: a block, a book, a ball, a shelf. I want my writing to evoke this kind of attack, this not quite touching. I want my language and the form I choose to give the impression of hitting my own limits. I want to disturb certainty. I want to allow the beings I write about to stay out of my reach – to transcend themselves.

Negative theologians believed that God was greater than anything humans could say about God, so anything anyone said had to be immediately left unsaid, taken away. God is light; God is not light. God is love; God is not love. They thought that if you did this often enough, the distance between subject and object would eventually collapse and you would have a religious experience. I think this exercise is useful because it makes me a more courageous writer. And that shows me what it’s like to hold two conflicting ideas at once. And it makes me playful, allows me to hold my sentences more freely. Here is a prompt based on this approach: Write something, then undo it. For example: I am a mother; I am not a mother. I’m afraid; I am love.

Have I been generous?

Readers sometimes take up the challenge of writing Care of strangers was the heartbreak I felt writing it, but that wasn’t what made the writing difficult. Writing has helped me survive my grief or at least learn to live with it. When we lost our adopted daughter, I felt helpless – I couldn’t keep the child in our safe care. But when I was writing the story of that loss, I felt an agency that I didn’t feel in the rest of my life. Arranging the words on the page reminded me of my power, even though my writing couldn’t change the outcome. To write a sentence is to change the world, even if this sentence is, She left.

For me, the biggest challenge was to write generously about people who had hurt our adopted daughter. Navigating the foster care system, interacting with social workers and bureaucrats, forced me to confront capacities for rage, violence and hatred that I didn’t know I had.

Before our adopted daughter came to live with us, I had lectured on the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Most of his family members were killed in the Holocaust and he worked to develop a philosophy that would make another genocide impossible. And it is this: When you are confronted with the face of the Other – a being you do not understand, who threatens your life, who could kill you – then it is a sign that you are in the presence of God. Their life must be protected at all costs, even at the cost of yours.

Levinas’ philosophy was easy for me to think about in the abstract, but it was much harder for me to live with. How do I write about social workers who hurt a child I love? How to write about his mother? What do I owe them on the page?

My solution was to write the raw version, often in all caps, leave it alone for a while, then take the judgment out of it while editing. I didn’t need to tell the reader what to think. I just let the characters speak for themselves. It’s not that I hid my anger; instead, I let the scene generate fury in readers, while leaving room for them to interpret things differently.

I also tried to remind myself that every human is complicated and suffering. Often they hurt because of the harm done to them. The social workers I interacted with were deeply traumatized, even though they didn’t understand themselves that way. They see the worst we do to each other, to children, every day.

Here’s a prompt that helps me generate compassion on the page. It is based on this extraordinary poem by Danusha Laméris, “Nothing wants to suffer”: Nothing wants to suffer. Not the… Not the… Not the…

Am I telling (some version of) the truth?

“But what if other people have a different version of this story?” the participants of my writing workshop ask me. Of course they do. But you’re entitled to your version, as long as you’re telling the truth.

After sending a draft of Care of strangers to my agent, Molly Friedrich, she said, “You and your husband are really smart people. If you wanted to adopt, then why the hell did you adopt from a foster family? Her question made me realize that I had written around a story that I didn’t want to tell, and without her, the whole manuscript sounded wrong. I had to write about my marriage and its redesign, even though I didn’t feel like it, even though it scared me.

In case you don’t have a truth-telling reader like my agent, here’s a prompt for you (inspired by an Australian writer named Annie Keely): Find a scene in your manuscript that still doesn’t work and ask yourself: What am I avoiding?

In the end, what helps me is remembering that our stories choose us. They believe we can become the writers they need us to be. This means that we can also trust each other.

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Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What’s Not Ours by Sarah Sentilles is available through Random House.