Writing the Deceased Back to Life: A Sin or an Honor

In class yesterday we talked about the concerns around narrating the lives of those who have died.  More specifically, we talked about what it means to give life to those who traveled on the Middle Passage.  In Hartman’s “Venus in Two Acts,” we read about double-edged sword that Hartman struggles with every day; she wants to tell the stories of the slaves in the archives, but claims they have “impossible stories to tell.”  This desire to tell someone’s story, but worry which constrains that desire, is something I constantly find myself struggling with.  This leads me to further question what it actually means to narrate the lives of those who have passed away.  Hartman writes how we, writers, could never do the lost lives justice.  While I believe this claim to an extent, I think that writers may write in a way that commends the lives that were lost. 

Hartman writes: “My account replicates the very order of violence that it writes against by placing yet another demand upon the girl, by requiring that her life be made useful or instructive, by finding in it a lesson for our future or a hope for history.”  It’s sad to think that writing about this girl’s life makes her life “useful.”  Therefore, writing about her would make her person yet another commodity—I think Rachel mentioned this idea in class.  While it’s upsetting to denounce the deceased girl to that of an object—especially when she is already considered an object alive—I do not think it is necessarily horrible to make her into something “useful.”  When we talk about her in class, I am learning about another world I wouldn’t have encountered without having read her story.  So, I think, it’s important not to overstep when bringing the dead to life in writing.  But then the question of what overstepping is arises.

I personally love to find historical accounts and to bring those accounts to life in poetry.  While I never had any qualms about this practice before, I now believe that I will go into this sort of writing more critically attuned to what I’m doing.  After all, I will never really know these people I am writing about.  I could read every article on the internet about a person and still never really know him/her/them.  But I think this is what makes creative writing so treasured—there is a margin of error.  I believe it’s important to remember these people and their stories; if one way to do that is by narrating their stories, then I can’t say what I am doing is immoral or unjust.

2 Replies to “Writing the Deceased Back to Life: A Sin or an Honor”

  1. Hi Ari,

    I’ve recently had the same conversation with some writer friends outside of class. The question becomes, in either nonfiction or by fictionalizing real people, does that create a violence to that person? By writing them, are you simply using them? Reducing them? Obviously, it is impossible to capture the entirety of a person on a written page, especially if that person is not the writer herself. Then, though, how do you do that person justice in writing them? Is that even possible? I have been struggling to produce any answers for these questions on my own. As I’m currently working on a nonfiction piece in which I am utilizing scenes that include friends and family and acquaintances, these questions are at the forefront of my mind. What are your thoughts on, what you call, the “margin of error”? Is it ethical to write about another person with or without their consent?

  2. Hi Rachel!
    I totally agree with all the questions you are asking. To be completely honest, my answer to most of them is: I don’t know. I would hope I am not using/reducing these people, but I don’t want to stop writing about them.
    It’s interesting how you mentioned you are working on non-fiction. I have never written non-fiction before; do you think you are “using” the people in your life to benefit your writing? l don’t think so.
    When I said there is a “margin of error” in creative writing, what I mean to say is in fiction and in poetry, you’re allowed to lie. For example, Spring ’15 I wrote a poem for workshop which narrated the life of Marilyn Monroe. I googled what her upbringing was like, and one of the details I came across was that she grew up without a father. This was written into my poem as “No daddy to forget.” While I tried to follow the facts of her life best I could, I certainly added/changed things along the way. I guess what I’m saying is, when you write creatively you don’t always need to get the facts straight. This leads me to question if I should write about these people at all if I’m not going to be honest about them. . . But I still want to write about them. What do you think?

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