“One thing that we always assume, wrongly, is that if we write about people honestly they will resent it and become angry… If you treat them with complexity and compassion, sometimes they will feel as though they’ve been honoured, not because they’re presented in some ideal way but because they’re presented with understanding.”
~ Kim Barnes, author of In The Wilderness
Our stories are never just about us, are they?
We become the writers we are because we were raised by one-of-a-kind families, nurtured and challenged by friends, loved and hurt by our exes, and surprised, sometimes, by the kindness or cruelty of strangers.
But writing about the people in our lives, past and present, is tricky.
The cost of getting it wrong — misrepresenting someone or striking just one note (i.e. my mother was only ever 100% awful) is one thing.
The cost of getting it right — you’ve accurately portrayed a family member/ partner/ boss whose behaviour even Mother Theresa would find unforgivable, is another.
Where do we draw the line on privacy? How do we navigate what may be deemed a betrayal when we write about experiences that implicate others?
Those are important questions, and many admirable writers, including Patricia Hampl, Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, have addressed the issues, ethics and dangers when writing about other people in their books.
But there’s also danger in worrying about how other people may feel about our work too early in the process.
As the wise writer and teacher mia susan amir so eloquently put it:
Fears about artmaking fall into two families: fears about yourself and fears about your reception by others.
Fears about self prevent you from doing your best work.
Fears about others prevent you from doing your own work.
Let this be your one concern when you set out to write a story: to shut the doors in your mind to others so you can do your own work.
I’ll leave you with a few discoveries I made about sharing my vulnerable stories:
1. Unless you point someone to it, your parents, in-laws, ex-best friend, boss, sweetheart, or the girl who bullied you in high school probably won’t come across your writing. The sad truth is the audience for literary journals, even online ones, is small.
What you may find, though, is that your work will attract people who reach out and thank you for sharing your story.
And that is when you may come to realize what I did: that the real purpose of your work isn’t approval from the people you know, but the genuine connection you make with those who come to it with an open and grateful heart. The people who need your story.
2. If you are fortunate enough to be published there will be a lag time between writing your uncensored work and what will actually appear in print.
You have time to decide what you’re comfortable with presenting to the world before your story is no longer just yours.
You might decide to:
a) show your work to someone who may react to your work in advance of publication
b) change your piece
c) change your mind and pull it or
d) go public and see what happens.
If your story is selected for publication I hope you’ll consider options A or D, remembering these words from Brenda Miller and Suzanna Paola’s Tell It Slant:
However you choose to negotiate these tricky issues, remember that your story is your story to tell. Yours is not the only story or perspective on family or on your community, but it is a perfectly valid voice among the chorus.
3. Accept that not everyone will come to your work with openness, gratitude, and understanding.
As Tori Amos said of her own work, I’m anchovies — not potato chips.
Not everyone likes what she does. Those music lovers can have their Top 40 salt and vinegar. That’s not who she sings for.
But anchovy-lovers? That’s who she keeps going back to the piano for, every time.
In my next email I’ll talk a bit about how to sidestep fear by focusing on structure.
I’ll also be opening registration tomorrow for 9 available spots in the May 15 session of my CNF Outliers e-course! An opportunity to write fresh new work, and work with me on improving your short-form memoir writing.
I love helping writers push past fear in this course. I hope you’ll join us. I can’t wait!