Telling people’s secrets isn’t particularly kind, but it can result in a great story.
Brian Castner, the prose writer-in-residence for Week Eight, will discuss this idea with his Brown Bag lecture, called “Writers are Always Selling Somebody Out” at 12:15 p.m. today on the front porch of the Literary Arts Center at Alumni Hall.
Castner is the author of the 2013 Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selection, The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life that Follows. His Brown Bag is inspired by writer Joan Didion. The quote that Castner uses for his Brown Bag’s title comes from Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
Castner said his lecture is also inspired by his own experiences as a writer, a profession he didn’t always think was feasible for him.
“I had always wanted to be a writer when I was a kid,” Castner said. “And then there was something about going into the military and becoming an adult and a husband and a parent that — I didn’t think writing was going to work. I didn’t think responsible adults could be writers. I thought responsible adults got jobby-jobs and paid mortgages.”
That changed for Castner when he decided to pursue writing. He wrote his memoir, The Long Walk, and then began working for different journalism outlets. He said his time working as a journalist and trying to get inside people’s heads and discover how they think influenced his choice of topic for his Brown Bag.
“When somebody reveals something to you that’s personal and intimate, maybe even without realizing they’re doing it, you still have your journalist’s hat on,” Castner said. “You realize, as a writer, what a gift they just gave you, what great stuff you just got. And the only way to write a great story and communicate that to the reader is betraying the trust in some way. Your source is maybe not media savvy, and they reveal something that’s great. And your readers will know it’s great, but like Didion says herself, you’re selling somebody out.”
Castner said that feeling of selling someone out is one that he has come across in the stories he has written over the years, which is something he plans to talk about.
“I wrote a piece for Wired magazine about the Boston bomb squad and what happened immediately after the marathon bombing,” Castner said. “I spent days with these guys, and collected hours and hours of tape. And the things that they say later, they might not have said in the beginning — and I think that’s some of the best material.”
Castner hopes that people will come away from his lecture with “an understanding of what’s going on in the writer’s head” with these kinds of sensitive topics and stories. He said that there is great writing being done in the various branches of nonfiction, and he wants to show the care and decision-making that goes into that kind of writing.
“I’m going to talk about building that trust,” Castner said. “And then, you know, you have that perfect moment, and you want to share that. But I also want to be honest about some of the conflicting ethics — it’s more complicated and nuanced.”
Castner thinks this is what Didion was addressing with her famous quote.
“I sense a little bit of regret in that quote,” Castner said. “Like you wish it were otherwise, but this is how it is.”