Last fall I wrote an essay about baseball. I grew up in Missouri (Translate: St. Louis Cardinals fan), but I’ve circled the country for the last 30 years and now live in Northern California (Translate: San Francisco Giants fan). My Giants were in the World Series this year and friends back home sent a constant flood of emails and texts and Facebook comments about how they don’t remember my being a baseball junkie, questioned my loyalty, called me a fair-weather fan and a traitor. (Translate: You are no longer one of us.) Their words, joking as they were, stacked one upon the other like the building of a dam until, by Game Five, I lost my sense of humor. I felt far away and alone and hurt. And I decided to write about it, knowing what I wrote might hurt some of my oldest friends. I had to think about the line.
At the AWP conference in 2012, I went to hear Stephen Elliott and Cheryl Strayed talk about this so-called line, the line of nonfiction writers. If you write nonfiction you have no choice but to write about other people. Real people. People who mean something to you. There is a line you’re going to have to cross. How are you going to do it? How far will you go? How are you going to live with the consequences?
“Where is your line?” Stephen and Cheryl asked from the stage.
I wrote the baseball story. I dug deep into my gut and wrote about how it feels to leave home and never go back, about loss, and about how the distance of friends and family feels a lot like grief. I was careful with identifying details. I did not use anyone’s name. I wrote right up to my line. And yet, the day the story went public, one of my dearest friends, the friend who’d uttered the most hurtful sentence, wrote me a note, and we had to do what I dreaded most: we had to talk about it. She felt I’d crossed the line.
In my early writing years, I worried about show-don’t-tell and structure and plot and not using too many adverbs, and I wrote careful, meaningless, un-publishable stories because I was afraid of hurting anyone’s feelings. I see now that I was waiting for permission. I was waiting for Someone with Authority to say, “This is the line, now write to it.” It took years for me to learn the Someone with Authority is me.
I am in constant search of my line. I move the line, in all its fluid messiness, forward and back and forward again, and I remain aware. I’ve found that with constant awareness of my own responsibility has come, surprisingly, courage. As I work on my memoir, as I write each new essay or even a blog post, I make the decision anew. Where is my line? Who might this hurt, and how much? I consider the consequences. I wrestle with what I can live with. I push forward. I write.
Read Teri’s essay in our current issue.