Writing Other People’s Stories, Part III: Getting Out of the Way

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Why telling a story in someone else’s voice is perhaps the biggest challenge of all—and the utmost (terrifying) privilege

In the first two installments of this series, I talked about empathy and bias when writing about other people’s lives, whether you’re depicting someone in a first-person piece or profiling them for a magazine. This final installment is about writing as a ghost, telling someone’s story as them.

In those cases, your job is mostly to get out of the way—not as easy as it might seem. You’ll have to dim your own existence a bit—or, at least, blur your own outlines—in service to the story. A ghostly task, indeed.

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At the video edit station

It’s easiest in a radio piece where you only hear the interviewee’s voice. This is one of my favorite ways to tell stories: Interview someone for an hour or more, long enough for them to relax and get personal. Then line up the puzzle pieces of their exposition, anecdotes, and reflections to make a self-contained, three-act sound piece starring them, with no narration beyond the host intro.

I rarely enter the “flow state” when I’m writing, but editing audio induces in me a kind of anesthesia: when I “go under” the headphones, the struggle of creation fades away, and hours slide by painlessly. It’s difficult, but it’s not “work” to me the way that writing is. It’s just me submerged in sound, sliding voices around against an atmosphere of music and ambient noise, until a story takes shape.

AND I LOVE IT.

You can hear samples of no-narration radio pieces here.

Ann Jetton

Ann Jetton, interviewed in 2017 for WPLN

An “as told to” print piece is similar, except that your puzzle pieces are an interview transcript.

But even though your source material is only the person’s quotations, you’re still making choices: What to ask. What to include. What to cut. What to emphasize. Choices of music or pauses (in radio). Choices of voice and tone.

So in that sense, you’re still interpreting someone’s story, a kind of spin. Which means that although their voice is certainly the instrument, you’re still directing, in part, the music of their story.

No pressure.

Works In Translation

Yegorova

Anna Timofeyeva-Yegorova

My first book-length project was very much a getting-out-of-the-way assignment. In 2005, I flew to Moscow to meet Anna Yegorova, a Soviet combat airwoman from WWII, and agreed to co-translate and edit her memoir.

We drank vodka from a canteen while she told her war stories: Combat missions over the Black Sea and Poland. Being shot down and taken prisoner by the Nazis. And then, being interrogated by and treated as a traitor by the Soviet secret police because she’d been a POW. (Sending liberated POWs through “filtration” procedures was common in the USSR during and after the war.)

Six decades later, Yegorova still wept when she remembered that betrayal, which was somehow more intense and personal than the pain of losing her comrades and seeing her country invaded.

The story of her interrogation appears in the book, complete with her outrage and heartbreak over the episode. But the manuscript she wrote is also full of jingoistic declarations, slogans, and lots of unquestioning pro-Soviet patriotism.

That bothered me. It seemed too simple. Was she really this ideologically pure, ever the good Komsomol young communist? Or was she still too afraid to be candid, even after the Iron Curtain fell? I wanted to dig in further, but the barriers of age, language, distance, and time made it impossible to interview her further. Maybe I should have tried. But the agreement I’d made with Yegorova, the co-translator Margarita, and the publisher was to deliver an edited English-language version of her manuscript. I had a mandate to cut some material that strayed from the main story, reorganize the narrative a bit, and to add light polish to the language and style. But interpreting her complicated feelings about sacrifice, patriotism, and ideology weren’t part of the assignment.

I didn’t feel it was my place to ADD things.

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Me, Anna Yegorova, and co-translator Margarita Ponomariova, 2005

Ultimately, I looked at it like this: Humans are full of contradictions. If this were a based-on-a-true-story novel, maybe we’d dig deeper and do a little imagining. But this was a memoir, so I left the contradictions alone; the jingoistic slogans and feelings of betrayal stand side by side. The reader can decide what it means. And occasionally, Yegorova does let her own doubts seep out, often through dialogue: She puts the doubts into the mouths of other people.

In this excerpt, it’s her mother expressing them. This scene will feel familiar to anyone who’s ever argued with a parent about politics:

“Our village had such a lovely church, with a high bell tower,” [Mama] recalled. “That bell was so loud, you could hear it even in our village, calling us to Mass. But Soviet power destroyed all that. 

“We had a village elder. We settled all our problems together, at village meetings. We didn’t have to go running to the regional authorities ten miles away for every little thing, like we do today. It’s always the same thing: whenever you go, they’re ‘not in today.’ So you trudge back home with nothing to show for your pains,” she held forth.

“Are you saying you lived better before the October Revolution?” [my brother] Vasya demanded.

“Absolutely!” Mama shot back. “There was order. If you sinned, you went to church and confessed, and your soul rested easier. If you had a  complaint, you went to the village elder a few doors down. He settled disputes fairly because he was one of us. He knew our village, and we knew him. He wouldn’t stand for these false accusations!”

“Enough, Mama!” I interrupted. “How can you keep glorifying pre-revolutionary times? Look around! What have we inherited from those days? The past has given us nothing but poverty and ruins. Socialism is a new start for us!”

“Oh, my little daughter! You don’t know how it was! The Great War, then the Revolution, the Civil War—it’s brought us only destruction, tears, and bloodshed. After the Revolution, the commissars tore everything to pieces and spread their blasphemy—”

“Stop it, Mama!” I cut in, breathlessly. “Let’s not fight about it anymore.

 —excerpted from RED SKY, BLACK DEATH: A SOVIET WOMAN PILOT’S MEMOIR OF THE EASTERN FRONT, Slavica Publishers, 2009.

The dialogue doesn’t quite ring true—it’s a bit stilted, like a memory reconstructed to explain things after the fact. And in light of what we learn later in her story—her brother Vasya being falsely convicted of espionage, her own interrogation for treason for the “crime” of being a POW—her mother’s line about “false accusations” sounds like deliberate foreshadowing. As if this argument between her, Vasya, and her mother were a “safe” way for Yegorova to express doubts about the Soviet regime. And that was her decision to make.

My current project is like RED SKY, BLACK DEATH in a certain sense: I had to try to inhabit a different time and place, and a culture not my own. But in other ways, it has been more challenging by far. Because we didn’t start with a manuscript; we started from nothing.

More on that soon. But what ties all this work together are the core requirements of aspiring to help someone else tell a story in their own voice: Curiosity and empathy. Humility and openness. Listening and reserving judgment.

Even if you’re not a writer, that’s not a bad approach to whatever life you happen to be living. We don’t always achieve those ideals, but they aren’t a bad aiming point.

See also:

Writing Other People’s Stories, Part I: Empathy in First Person

Writing Other People’s Stories, Part II: All Great Features Are Profiles

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