Who Owns the Stories?

In a week, I'll be part of a panel, sponsored by the Lakehead University Centre for Health Care Ethics, that considers the ethics of storytelling in health care settings. It will also be webcast! Here's a link to all that info.

The featured speaker is Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, Lakehead's Chair on Truth and Reconciliation. I'm sure her insights as a researcher, and an indigenous researcher, will generate a lot of discussion.

After she speaks, those of us on the panel (Dr. Elaine WiersmaDr. Vicki Kristman, and I) will respond, discuss, and take off on tangents (oh wait, that's me), with Kristen Jones-Bonofiglio, Director of the Centre for Health Care Ethics, moderating.

One might wonder what I'm doing up there, with distinguished and experienced researchers and storytellers.

First, I'm there to represent those non-experts who write about tender and touchy subjects that relate to health care. Choosing to navigate, on the page, my mother's illness, my father's conflicted care, and my own guilt was challenging and rewarding.

Every step toward sharing my writing also exposed actual information about me, and about my family members. My siblings, all of whom write in some capacity, also had their own stories about that time and the years since their deaths. I had to navigate the line between writing "all about me me me" and ensuring I spoke only from my own experience--the story I "owned."

Writers share their work. Or at least that's part of writing for me. Over time, I became used to sending out work in general, and such personal essays in particular. Still, when Signature Editions offered to publish the collection as a book, I had another "OMG gulp" moment--what would my parents think about my story/their stories being shared in this form? (My husband and I agreed that that horse had already left that barn.)

Second, in my view I'm there to represent the conversation about "story ownership" in the wider writing world. People who write fiction and creative nonfiction always ask themselves questions like "What is the story?" "How do I get it right?"

For most writers I know, the past decade's emphasis on supporting underrepresented voices in telling their own stories has added other questions: "Am I the right person to tell this story?" "Am I the best person to tell this story?" "Is this story mine to tell?"I'm also interested in helping others tell their own stories--how can I facilitate their voices and stay out of the way?

I've attended a few other sessions of the Centre for Health Care Ethics, all of which gave me new perspectives. I'm really looking forward to the presentation, the discussion, and the questions that the audience will raise.

And most of all, I'm so grateful to be included in this ongoing, important conversation.