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Writing memoir: Whose underwear is it, anyway?

June 21, 2009 | 11:49 am

Sandratsingloh_panties

L.A. writer and performer Sandra Tsing Loh is getting divorced, not that it's any of my business. Except Loh has made her life the basis for her stories -- she includes her children, their education, her father and, in one famously unbleeped moment, her musician husband -- so writing about the divorce was probably unavoidable. In a piece in the Atlantic Monthly:

Sadly, and to my horror, I am divorcing. This was a 20-year partnership. My husband is a good man, though he did travel 20 weeks a year for work. I am a 47-year-old woman whose commitment to monogamy, at the very end, came unglued.

Loh writes of what she did for the marriage, then turns her attention to a few marriage books. But she really gets going when she recounts conversations she's had with her girlfriends, who share their marriage complaints with Loh once hers has broken apart. From the piece:

Passing note: Ellen has been married for 18 years, and she also, famously, never has sex. There were the hot 20s with Ron and the making-the-babies 30s, and in the 40s there is … nothing. Ellen had originally picked Ron because she was tired of all the bad boys, and Ron was settle-down husband material. What she didn’t know was that after the age of 38, thanks to Mr. Very Settled-Down, she was never going to have regular sex with a man again.

Well, if Ellen's marriage wasn't exactly famous before, it sure is now. But are there boundaries that should be respected when writing memoir? Should anything be considered off limits?

That's what Marion Winik asks in an essay in today's Times book section. Winik, who has written about drug use and assisted suicide, considers the moral implications of the memoir.

This was the beginning of my understanding of the most serious moral principle of memoir: The act of writing about another person occurs not just in the world of literature but in real life. It cannot help but change your relationship, and this should be the first thing you think about.

Winik is concerned that the doctor author of "The Addict" may not have informed his patient that her story had formed the basis of a new book. "Was it possible that this patient not only hadn't agreed to be portrayed in the book, but did not know Stein had written it?" She asks. "And if so, wouldn't that be a terrible violation?"

Yet she notes that a memoirist always has his or her own memories,  perceptions from which that person writes. After all, the doctor treated the patient -- so the story is his too.

Is it possible to draw a line around what a writer cannot use in a story? Do the family members and friends of memoirists have any right to ask that they be excluded from the work? When it comes to airing laundry -- clean or dirty -- will it always be the person with the pen who decides what's fair game?

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Sandra Tsing Loh presents L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa with a pair of panties from her Mothers on Fire campaign for more parent choice in public education in May 2009. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

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