Sunday, September 9, 2018

Truth Be Told

Recently, a former friend of mine published a memoir that included recollections of the small town we grew up in. There were several aspects of it that made me bristle and say, "Hey! That's not how I remember it!"

For example, Former Friend claimed that at our Catholic high school, there was only one single-session sex ed class a year, and it was taught by our gym teacher. But although it is true that they didn't really teach us much about "safe sex," what I also remember is that our religion teachers taught sex ed. I remember that sex ed occurred a lot more often than once a year, probably because they were afraid that we hormonal teenagers would be "corrupted" by the sin of premarital sex. (Little did they know that a lot of the students' minds had already been corrupted. If they had known, I can totally imagine the religion teachers shaking their heads sorrowfully while saying that we were going to go to hell unless we repented and the priests throwing holy water at us or something.)

(Side note: Although I am still a practicing Catholic and believe in many of its core principles, such as the Golden Rule of treating other people with kindness and compassion, there are several other things about the Church that I strongly disagree with.)

I don't remember our gym teacher teaching us sex ed, although he may have taught it to Former Friend and their classmates (Former Friend was in a different grade). I do remember that when the gym teacher taught us how to lift weights, he stood over us and yelled, "You're WEAK! Is that all you can benchpress, WEAKLING?" I also remember wishing I could say, "Who are you calling a weakling? Take THAT!" And then I'd karate kick him in the face.

Former Friend's memoir made me think about what might happen if I ever publish my work-in-progress, a book-length memoir titled Obsessions of a Workaholic. Since it's not a novel, I can't say, "It's fiction, and it's not based on you, of course," if someone from my life were to read it and get upset by my depiction of him or her. Everything that I've described in this blog really did happen, but I've had to alter the descriptions of some of the situations and/or people in order to protect their identities and my own.

That makes me wonder how much "altering" I'll need to do in my book. Since teaching has been such an important part of my life, naturally there are several chapters about my work as a teacher. But I have to be very careful about what I write, especially when it comes to the students.

Many of my students are good students who work hard, are polite and respectful to me and their classmates, and are dedicated to earning good grades and learning as much as they can while they are in college. Some of them have truly inspired me because of the writing they produced in my class or because of what they confided in me about their dreams for the future, which made me hope that all of their dreams would come true.

But as any teacher can relate, every year there is always a small, select group of students who are the complete opposite: the ones who are hostile and disrespectful, or the ones who believe they "deserve" A's just for showing up to class. These students are why my hair started turning white the first year I started teaching, and they are also why I always keep a bottle of Tylenol in my office at school.

Since I'm still working on the first draft, I've been writing down all the details that I can remember, everything from the student who confided in me about what it was like to be a transgender teenager in a community that believes people like them are mentally ill, to the student whose verbal attacks almost drove me to tears in front of one of the first classes I ever taught, causing several of the other students to feel sorry for me and apologize to me for that student's behavior after class was over.

I recently read a book titled Waiter's Rant, written by Steve Dublanica, who wrote about his experiences as a waiter at a fancy restaurant that the rich and famous dined at. His book was based on his blog, where he initially wrote under the pseudonym the Waiter. Once he revealed his true identity, he admitted that he'd never be able to get another restaurant job because of what he wrote. Fortunately for him, his book became a New York Times best-seller and he didn't have to wait tables anymore after it was published.

But the difference between him and me is that he didn't want to be a waiter until he retired, whereas I know that I want to spend my life as a writer AND a teacher. The problem is, if I write the whole truth and nothing but the truth about my former students, especially the ones who gave me the most problems, I could lose my job. Teachers are held to a different standard. Academia is a small world, and it's not just competitive, it's cutthroat because there are way too many people with PhDs and not enough jobs. I am a college professor, but I am untenured, which means that I don't have the job security that tenured professors have. If I lost my job, there would literally be hundreds of people lined up who would be more than happy to take my place.

This generation of students in particular is the one known for their "microaggressions" and demands for "trigger warnings" in their curriculum. Most of the students I've come across over the years are not like them, but there are nevertheless a few others I've read about in the news (as well as ones I've encountered in my own classes) who claimed that they were "offended" by things that their teachers said or wrote and then launched campaigns to destroy those teachers' careers and reputations, driving them out of their schools, and in some cases, out of education altogether. Sometimes, the teachers really did say offensive things, but in other cases, they didn't, but were nevertheless interpreted as such. Either way, I don't think that any of them deserved to be the target of hateful harassment campaigns.

Although I've achieved several of my academic and professional goals, I still have other goals. And I'm afraid that if this memoir did get published, I could lose everything I've worked for and everything I'm still working for if I revealed too many details about certain students.

I thought that if this book does get published, I could use my pseudonym: Neurotic Workaholic. But if and when I do become a published writer, I'd like to see my real name printed on my story, and if and when that happens, I'll reveal it on this blog. That's the thing about this blog: I can be more candid here because almost no one in my offline life knows that I'm the one writing this blog. It's different when it's a published book or short story.

For now, I've decided to follow Anne Lamott's advice about writing the "bad" first draft by including everything that I can remember, and I'll go back and edit it once I finish the first draft. I also try to remember what I've learned from other creative nonfiction writers I've read and heard speak: that what you write in creative nonfiction doesn't necessarily have to be 100% factual, as long as the core of what you're saying is true. David Sedaris, after all, is a creative nonfiction writer, but even he "embellishes" the truth about what happened. Dave Barry's hilarious columns are funny partly because he exaggerates a lot of things.

I think that one possible solution is that rather than describe the problem behavior of specific students, I could describe the problem behavior of a range of students, like the ones who sit in the back of the classroom, listen to music on their phones (even after I tell them to take off their headphones, they'll protest by saying, "But the music isn't even that loud!" And then I make a mental note to take some Tylenol right after class), and tune me out for weeks until they get their grades back. Then they blame ME when they don't get A's, and I also make a mental note to get my hair dyed to cover the white hair that is literally sprouting from my head at that moment. That might be less controversial than describing specific students.

What about you? Do you write creative nonfiction? If you do, how do you write about the "problematic" people you've encountered in your life? What do you think of memoirists who "embroider" the truth, as the writer Ruth Reichl admitted doing in her memoirs? (I love her books, regardless.)


  1. Memory can be very deceptive though almost always illuminating to some degree. I have a memoir in the works (not very far along in the writing however) and I've been inclined to think a bit creatively about my own interpretation of my past. I'm not sure about problematic people as I have not tackled that aspect of my life yet. Really though I can't think of too many people who were problematic to the point that I didn't overcome their influence.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out

    1. Hi Arlee Bird,
      That last point you made about overcoming the influence of problematic people especially struck a chord with me; that is, I think that even though it's been more than a decade since some of those students I described were in my class, their behavior still bothers me to a certain extent. I think it's less about them and more about what I wish I had done differently. You're right about how memory can be very deceptive; that might explain why my former friend's memories of what happened in our small town are not the same as mine.

  2. Being an instructor definitely makes writing a memoir tricky. Keep us posted.

    1. Hi Sandra,
      The question of how to portray my students in my writing was something I hadn't fully considered until now. But I do want to write about them; I just need to figure out the right way to do that.

  3. Mmm, it's an interesting problem/question. I think a pseudonym would be the way to go. You could then reveal that name on the blog. Lots of people do very well using a different name.

    As for the students, if you took out or changed identifying features, I bet many students would see themselves in the person who were writing about.

    1. Hi Annalisa,
      Thank you for the advice! My only concern about using a pseudonym is that some people might uncover my real name anyway, thanks to Google and other forms of Internet sleuthing. It's true that some students may see themselves in my descriptions of students in general. On the other hand, I'm willing to bet that several of the problematic students still believe that they did nothing wrong, including the one whose friends apologized because they were ashamed of that student's behavior.

  4. All of this reminds me of the book we are reading now for the Insecure Secure Writer's Support Group Book Club on Goodreads. I run it. :) The book is The Art of Memoir and the author, Mary Karr, talks a lot about memory, how other people can remember things differently, etc. You should check out the book. And tomorrow I'll be posting a discussion wit 12 questions that members can answer. You should pop in. :) Here's a link to the group:

    1. Hi Chrys,
      Sorry about my late response; work has been more time-consuming than usual this week. But thanks for the book recommendation! I'll check it out and I'll check out the discussion too!
      I think what's interesting about my Former Friend's claims is that, if the "whole truth" would have been included, it would have changed the meaning of their narrative as a whole.