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The ‘Ethics of Nonfiction’ by Amy Benson

July 9, 2008

Writers have no ethics, if by ethics you mean respect for the lives and truths of others, and if by respect you mean leaving them alone, and if by leaving them alone you mean not ever seeing them as material. Words are a currency and the lives of others an entire economy. How much to tell? How shall it be told? What you know of someone else’s life has one value when kept to yourself and a different value when told. One power when you shut the door behind you, lean in close to my ear, when we go to the movies together, laugh behind cinderblock buildings, send notes to each other from our own pens in our own hands. When I watch your face change like clouds moving over water. We feel so close, these intersections of our lives like a secret conduit. We actually believe we might feel the same way about something.

And then there is the power of turning your sigh into a metaphor, our car trip into a narrative with a significant ending. The power of turning you out of the inner folds of my life and into dialogue.

That time when we were kids and your father yelled at you in front of me and you didn’t guard your face, which crumpled, as we would never want our faces to crumple, into the folds of an old man who knows for sure it won’t get any better. I saw that. It was mine. And you knew I saw it, so it was ours. And now it’s not.

We all want to be loved, but some of us are willing to gut our lives of secrets, their moist insides stiffening and cracking in the sun, then look, like a dog, for approval. Some of us are willing never to live a moment again until we’ve inked it on the page. Some of us don’t know how else to live. I don’t know how else to live. So don’t be my friend.*

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I can’t begin to tell you, readers, how steadily I have meditated on exactly this problem. Everyone seems to assume poetry is autobiographical, confessional, even when it is not. And I have gotten myself into trouble with this blog more than once. I have hurt people, people I care about. It bothers me quite a bit. But, I feel I have the right to my memories, to my view on the world. It is narrow, and flawed, to say the least, as is everyone’s. The difference being, of course, that I publisize mine in a way that most people don’t. I feel compelled to do that. I only hope that my readers can understand my limitations. I am not judging, or propagating, or condemning; I am merely telling, shaping the raw elements of my experience into chains of metaphors by which I can make some sense out of being. I love you all.

* emphasis my own. This excerpt is from Benson’s book The Sparkling-Eyed Boy which is a highly inventive memoir of sorts.

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