Today, the Missouri Review offers a variation on Contributors on Craft, short craft essays from the writers we publish. This post is by Lise Saffran, TMR board member and author of the novel Juno’s Daughters.
I teach a course called Storytelling in Public Health and Public Policy at the University of Missouri. The public health students in my class arrive skeptical about the value and even the morality of storytelling, unlike creative writers or indeed Missouri Review readers. They think stories are great as long as they stay in their place. It’s kind of like how my kids used to like mashed potatoes and green beans fine until they touched each other on the plate. My students want to prevent disease; they don’t think they should have to manipulate people with stories. In their minds, stories are the domain of people who try to get others to forget about evidence with anecdotes about a child who just “never seemed the same” after he got his shots.
Happily, it doesn’t take long for that skepticism to fade. My students begin to understand that they are doing their issues a disservice if they show up with their stacks of figures while everyone else–journalists, politicians and advocates–provides compelling narratives that often stand in opposition to the numbers. And that’s when the real work begins. We ask ourselves: What is a good public health story? What is a true public health story? What are the ethical obligations of the public health storyteller? The kinds of things that make a story good–concrete language, an interesting structure–will be familiar to writers of fiction and creative nonfiction. Things get trickier when it comes to ethical obligations. Public health workers aren’t usually journalists. They’re not necessarily doctors or nurses. They’re not, or at least not exclusively, artists. They’re managers of food banks, of health education campaigns in communities, of small nonprofit organizations or state agencies. The difference between a public health story and a literary work, I often argue, centers around relationships. For example, are my students telling the stories of marginalized communities? Do people in that community depend on their organization for services? Will those people feel like they have been fairly represented or exploited?
I urge my students to think about their relationship to people and communities as they tell their stories and to expect to be accountable to those people after the story is told. I encourage them to think less like a journalist who might visit a community, report on an incident once, and never visit again and more like a memoirist writing about people who are likely to remain part of the fabric of their lives. Necessarily, an examination of relationships prompts a deeper examination of self. Not just what is this person’s relationship to me, but what is my relationship to the story? How do I know that my truth is the truth? These are appropriate questions for a storyteller working in places where there are often big differences in power, not to mention access to media outlets and decision makers. Sounds like memoir again, and perhaps it is, but maybe it is also fiction. Or perhaps it should be.
The thing that got me thinking about this question of relationships this morning was coming across a link to an old issue of Crab Orchard Review, which contains a story that I published following my public health internship in Sri Lanka. As with most stories, it was a hybridization of real and imagined events, an effort to create something that was, in the words of Alice Munro, “not real but true.” I made up things about my own life (my mother was not ill) and I included real things about the family I stayed with (their older son had left Sri Lanka for Canada). In the story I referred to that son as “difficult.” It was fiction and in that alchemy of real and true, of knowing and imagining, shouldn’t everything be possible? Isn’t thinking about relationships and considering how other people might feel when they read your story a form of self-censorship? I can hear myself during the writing of this story, in my mid-twenties, asking those questions. I can hear myself now, many years later, answering them differently.
I’m proud of that story. I’m proud of it except for that one word. Difficult. What if I had asked myself the question I urge my students to ask themselves: when the story is published, will the people I am writing about feel they have been fairly represented? I believe that if I had, I would have recognized that description as a mistake. It wasn’t a mistake because I valued the truth over my relationship with the family. It wasn’t a mistake because I valued my right to invent fiction over my relationship with the family. It was a mistake because I didn’t have the slightest idea of why the son left for Canada. I didn’t understand their family’s relationship. The word “difficult” was a lazy way of papering that over. Were there other things they might have objected to in the story? Things that felt both real and true to the story I was telling, even given an honest accounting of who I was and what I knew and what I didn’t? Possibly, but I never got to ask. I sent them story after it was published, but I never heard back.