A Worthy Guest

While Tracy Kidder sat with Adrian Nicole Leblanc in the Hynes Ballroom at AWP this year, a member of the audience asked a predictable question:  How do you forgive yourself for peering so deeply into the lives of other people for the sake of literary entertainment?  Nearly every nonfiction Q&A I have attended has touched on a variation of this theme.

Tracy Kidder

Tracy Kidder

The subtext to this question varies.  Some writers want to know how to get away with it.  Others want to forgive themselves for it.  I thought that Kidder’s answer recast the question.  He didn’t excuse his gaze or try to justify it.  Instead, he responded to the question he most likely wished he had been asked—how, or according to what values, do you approach your subjects? 

Kidder knows that conflicts and peculiarities make for good characters in literature, and that the aesthetics of his craft influence the composition of his narrative.  He also knows that he may see a subject differently than she sees herself.  I believe that Kidder considers these tensions an inherent part of his work, and therefore focuses on this intention: “I try to be a worthy guest in those people’s lives.”

The concept of writer as guest seems useful.  One of the challenges of writing literary nonfiction is how to move deftly between the panorama and the intimate detail, the context and the peculiarities, all the while recognizing that, through the work of interviews and research, everyone changes.  Neither the writer nor the subject is ever the same after the work has been written, let alone after it is published.Kidder recognizes this impossible balance when he positions himself as a guest in the lives of his subjects.  He knows that his presence is temporary, and he knows that his subjects will go on with their lives after he steps out.  His intention, it would seem, is to mind his manners, not make too much of a mess, say please and thank you.

I’d let him off the hook real easy except for this— guests can, and often do, discuss their hosts the moment they walk out the front door.  Perhaps this is why Kidder spoke of being a “worthy guest.”  In addition to behaving while working in the life of another person, he also tries to be good to his subjects while outside of their lives and composing his texts.

About the task of writing other people’s lives, I think this:  We are all deliriously enraptured with communicating our experiences.  We talk, tweet, text, and send each other photos as a way of sharing ourselves, of inviting other people into our lives. I think this impulse to want to know and talk about other people is as basic as our need to be known and to talk about ourselves. All of us are guests in each other’s lives,  and all of us walk out the front door talking.  Why not have journalists like Kidder who are professional guests, who can teach us some ways to be good to each other as our feet pass back over the welcome mat?


  • Great post, Summer. I love the idea of the nonfiction writer as a “worthy guest.” I’ve never thought of the author presence in a work quite that way. Now that you’ve pointed it out, I can think of pieces I’ve read that made me feel uncomfortable because the writer didn’t know the difference between a voyeur and a worthy guest.

    • Summer Hess says:

      Me too, Asa. I can sense this posture of a “worthy guest” in Kidder’s writing, and I strive for it in my own work.

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