Who Has Your Creativity Sold Out?

Is your creativity selling out someone in your life?

Joan Didion famously wrote that “writers are always selling somebody out.” Songwriters, painters, novelists and other creatives channel their life experiences when producing their art. Take my post on Tuesday, in which I passed along advice I heard at a recent writer’s conference about building a fictional narrative around a personal “flashbulb” memory.

Writers often write with the hope that the individuals who appear in their writings won’t discover that fact. I changed the person’s name, a fiction writer will say. I changed her ethnicity, or her sex. But as I explore this issue–which I’m thinking about examining more fully in my MFA critical thesis at the Vermont College of Fine Arts–I hear published writers repeatedly say that the people they write about do find out, often quickly after publication.

In the last few months I’ve questioned published memoirists and attended panel discussions on this question. I blogged about a panel on this topic at AWP for the online journal Brevity, and a week ago I attended a similar panel at the Conversations and Connections Conference in D.C. The message always seems to be the same: Assume the person will read the piece, and will be upset. And write it anyway.

Write it. But is that right?

“I’ve sold my family out a lot,” said Huffington Post essayist Tamar Abrams at the recent conference. She said she hasn’t written about her brother, who is a Harvard Law professor, “because he said he would sue my ass.” But she writes about her parents and others, and never shows her work to them before publication.

A writer has to risk selling out others, memoirist Tom McAllister said. “Your option is either to tell an honest story or hold things back.” “You have to be willing to lose your friends,” he said.

When Cathy Alter in her memoir included unflattering details about her mother, her mother chose not to read the book. But her father did, and chastised her. Yet Alter has no regrets. She asked her father, “Should I have lied?” “You have to make people three-dimensional,” she said.

A writer has to write, I keep hearing. When you write, you have to be honest. Being honest means risking offense of others. If you’re harder on yourself in your writing, others really don’t have the right to object.

But everyone I’ve talked to on this subject, and everyone I’ve listened to on panels, is a writer. They are in a bubble that most people don’t occupy. Alter said someone told her that if she felt compelled to write her memoir, she should have written it, but then hidden it away in a drawer. The audience of writers in the room gasped in horror. “I know, right?” Alter said. She bemoaned the fact that she lacked a good comeback for the awful offense she felt by that statement. But what about the offense her mother felt?

I feel the woman who caused Alter offense had a point. Okay, your muse is insisting you get it on paper, so obey her. But why do you have to publish it?

I confess to examining this issue in such detail because I am wrestling with it myself. I have begun to explore the personal essay form in the last two years, and am working on a memoir in my MFA program. At times I am writing about others in a way that I believe is flattering, but what I’ve learned from memoirists is that others will take offense even when you think you’re being nice, simply because they don’t see themselves as you do.

But sometimes I am not being nice. Or, to put it another way, I am painting somebody in what I perceive to be three dimensions, and I know they will not appreciate that. I’m writing about private moments, times when the subject could not possibly have imagined that their actions or words would be broadcast to the world. Beyond that, what would be broadcast would not be actual footage, but my own perception, colored by biases and the passage of time.

I believe the writers I’ve sought knowledge from on this issue fail to appreciate the fact that non-writers don’t get this burning need writers feel to not only write their stories, but share them with the world.

One of my MFA advisors–a brilliant writer and teacher who I’d love to work with on this issue if it becomes my critical thesis–tells me that her memoirs of child abuse and sexual addiction have helped many others who suffered like her. The title of Sue Silverman’s craft book Fearless Confessions makes clear the advice she offers. But while individuals in her sexual addiction memoir, Love Sick, were still alive when she wrote it, her sexually abusive father and truth-denying mother both were dead when she wrote Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You.

I maintain the writer’s courage must be higher when the subjects can read what you’ve written, and know that others who interact with them also can read it, potentially changing their opinion of that person. There are things about myself of which I am not proud, and at some point I may be willing to share on the page. I would not appreciate someone else sharing those in writing first, colored by their own perspective.

I haven’t found the answers I seek. For now I continue to write, wondering what I would risk publishing and what I would choose to leave in the drawer. I also wonder if other creatives have pondered this dilemma in their own creativity, if they’ve been able to pull themselves out of the artist bubble and appreciate the perspectives of those they would portray in their art.

I invite your thoughts below.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

71 Responses to “Who Has Your Creativity Sold Out?”

  1. Patrick, What a tough question to ask. I think I would have a hard time sharing about my family and their story while they are living. Good and bad times, I think they would feel their lives violated and I feel the need to honor that. When I write, I am happy to share my story (sometimes I do wonder how much is too much or too little) but I do try to keep my family in the shadows of those same stories. Perhaps that was a subconscious choice to avoid exactly the kind of question you are posing. Perhaps it is wrong of me, but I tend to wonder if it is right to write it, as you say. Yet, how much great literature or nonfiction would not exist if people followed that philosophy?

    As for my painting, I have incorporated people into paintings (for example I was grieving over a breakup a few years ago and made a rather unflattering picture of my ex) but that has remained hidden in my sketchbook because it was truly meant for me as an emotional release and a healthy means of grieving. I never wanted to hurt him with it! I have often focused on self-portraiture as a means of working but I have found it interesting to watch people to respond to the portraits I create of them. Some are so excited and others have been mildly uncomfortable with the portrayal (showed the melancholy someone was experiencing) but no one has ever voiced displeasure. And I certainly haven’t lost friends or family over my paintings.

    I look forward to reading what others think!

    • Hi Carrie, thank you for your reflective response. I find it interesting you chose not to show the portrait of your ex, but explore self-portraiture. I think the problem creative writers have is that, in writing a self-portrait, it is impossible not to include those around us, because they are part of our own portrait. Because I tend to look at things from the point of view of creativity, not just writing, I’m always curious how different mediums are similar yet different. You talk about your writing and your painting, so you can see the differences yourself in your own craft pursuits.

  2. I think that good writers, like good actors, must see themselves as truth-tellers. Bold, unvarnished and as you say, three-dimensional. If you open your mouth to speak, put pen to paper to write, or stand up on stage to face a fellow actor, your primary objective is to tell the truth. Observers and readers can spot lies immediately.

    I recall a particularly gruelling acting class where the teacher became almost homicidal whenever any of us “played pretend” with our scenes. He’d get red in the face and scream at us. “NO! I DON’T BELIEVE YOU”. And he was right. It was only when we pulled from deep within us our true emotions that he was satisfied. Seems almost like a dichotomy: great actors don’t act. They react. They tell the truth.

    I feel exactly the same about my writing as well. To that end, I’ve often struggled with my lack of courage when it comes to writing the unvarnished truth – when it touches on others in my life. I’ve done the same as you mentioned: changed the person’s name or sex, in order to protect them (and to protect myself, frankly, from a lot of drama).

    The problem is that not writing about them limits you. Their interactions with you is part of who you are. It’s part of not only your own narrative, but of your motivations as well. Truth-telling requires a sort of brutal honesty: you can’t bring your point to the table without it. I mean, you can, but the degree to which your point becomes effective is proportional to the level and amount of truth you choose to allow.

    • Wolf… you’re lucky to have had a teacher who caught you being creatively bogus: “I don’t believe you!” Wow… I wish I’d have had that kind of training early on. That truth is buried deep is sooo true. To have someone hound us all the way to that truth is invaluable, i reckon.

    • Your last paragraph is the one I have the hardest time refuting when I am looking for ways to not completely reveal. I see it in the writing I’m doing right now with my MFA advisor. I tell myself, “Well, only he will read this,” and then I write with brutal honesty, and he is moved. When I hold back, it is like your theater class, he knows immediately.

      I was just re-reading the intro by Phillip Lopate in The Art of the Personal Essay on this point, and he says a skilled writer most of the time can hold back and still write well, but a skilled reader will eventually catch the dishonest writer and paint him as a fraud.

  3. Reblogged this on To tell you the truth and commented:
    A thought provoking and insightful article regarding the risk of telling your truth in writing… The risk to personal relationships must be weighed when sharing our own stories. Thinking about this one a lot lately…

  4. Corey Barenbrugge Reply April 27, 2012 at 11:56 am

    This is an important question, Patrick, that I think strikes at the root of why writers write. Personally, I believe stories and essays and poems reveal emotional and psychological truths about the human condition in a manner no other art form can match. When we read, we’re inserted into a world other than our own in which there is interplay between the author and the reader in terms of who is controlling the flow and pace of the story. If I want to spend some time in a certain place for a while, I can read very slowly, but the author might want me to be swept up in the action, and his words might carry me away for a few pages. Writers should be discerning when crafting their work, but also understand that they surrender some control when they release their work.

    When other people are represented in our writing, I hope they feel their inextricable bonds to humanity in the revealing of their truths. Regardless of whether what happens in a piece is fact or fiction, the truths revealed about the human condition transcend the concerns of here and now. When we decide to publish something about loved ones, we need to ask ourselves what is more important: their immediate feelings or the story (truth).

    That isn’t an easy question to answer (nor is it an easy one to ask), and I suspect the answer won’t always be the same. One “truth” I can surmise is that often when we’re offended by something it’s because we’ve never directly faced our emotions surrounding that thing. We’re discomforted by it. If what’s written is good, it will do what our loved ones haven’t been able to: reveal the truth.

    • Corey… your comment says perfectly what I was just now trying to formulate less perfectly. Thanks for that. I was only going to add something about the necessarily “deluded” nature of this human condition of ours. I think all good writing strives — even unconsciously — to reveal truths buried beneath our useful-but-deluded belief systems. As writers, we then have to decide if the truth is worth irking a few people. I most often take the stance that seeing through delusions is pretty much the meaning of life…so…

      • “I most often take the stance that seeing through delusions is pretty much the meaning of life…so…”

        That is a truly honest way to live one’s life, PJ, a path that likely will be self-actualizing. And you’ll likely lose a few friends along the way. And we’re back at Corey’s balancing act.

        • Thanks PJ. I enjoy considering the balance between truth and delusion. Unless we entertain a jolting revision to the way we traditionally live our lives, I think you’re right that we are “necessarily deluded.” I’d also add that our experiences are often “diluted,” or filtered, through our belief systems and delusions. The best writing breaks through the cleaned-up versions of ourselves and our experiences. The authors of such writing are courageous because they aren’t–as most people are–afraid to get dirty.

    • So much to love in your comment, Corey. I thought I’d respond to wishing those shown recognize their larger connection to truth, or that we need to balance feelings and truthful storytelling. But I’m going to seize on this:

      “One “truth” I can surmise is that often when we’re offended by something it’s because we’ve never directly faced our emotions surrounding that thing.”

      That says it all, doesn’t it? We all are a bit afraid of a large mirror in a well-lit room. We all have things we’d rather not have seen, even by ourselves. But we writers explore our own flaws and dark shadows in our own writing; the individual written about didn’t choose to engage in that process. So we’re back to your balancing question. What your insight does show is that it likely is all but impossible to “please” someone when writing about them.

      • Thanks Patrick. I thought about this today while taking a walk near Mount Vernon. George Washington is certainly a man who encouraged and nourished truth!

        You’re right, it is likely impossible to please the people you’re writing about, and I think if you’re writing to please, you’re likely diluting the truth by engaging the delusions PJ writes about above. I don’t think writing is meant to be gussied-up and airbrushed for a big show (a la taking a pretty girl to the prom).

        Similarly, by sometimes writing about people other than ourselves, I wonder if what we’re ultimately doing is processing our own thoughts and emotions about what those people have done or gone through. In which case, it is the writer’s “truths” that are being expressed. But in the hands of a capable writer, are the truths expressed ones that everyone can relate to: universal truths? Or (and this isn’t a pretty thought), are the writers who dig deeper than the surface burying themselves in their own delusions? As an aspiring writer, I lean toward the former, but I can see how those who may be displeased by our writing might see us as mere gravediggers.

  5. I should just link to this post instead of write a detailed comment here. But I’ll just give you the very short version of the story.

    I used to only write personal essays. I did this for 10 years. I never attacked anyone in my essays (I don’t have the ammunition– I had a nearly perfect childhood). But I went through a terrible time in my life about 5-6 years ago. And when I wrote about how badly I was hurting, it hurt people very close to me.

    I’ve read Fearless Confessions. There is a lot of validity and wisdom in writing the truth even if it hurts others. But I decided that I couldn’t do it anymore.

    And about two years ago, I started primarily writing fiction.

    • Thank you for sharing your story. I would note, however, that fiction writers often write about themselves and others as well, even if they set them in outer space or in the Middle Ages.

      It is, of course, easier for a fiction writer to find ways to avoid putting people they know on the page, however, and as you’ve learned this is important to you, that would seem the right form of writing for you.

      • Kate Arms-Roberts Reply May 3, 2012 at 8:29 am

        It is easier for me to wrestle with the deep emotional truths of my life and convert them into art in the fiction form. Part of that is my fear of self-revelation, but a large part of it is avoiding writing directly about real people.
        I am wrestling with this issue right now. For years, I have not blogged about my children, but I am writing for a blog now where my experience parenting my children is explicitly relevant. As a writer, I want to mine that material for all that it is worth, but as a mother, I want to be very cautious about what I write about them – especially on the Internet.

  6. This is a very complicated question. I think, like most things, it comes down to personal choice and balance. Yes, I have written about real people in my life in honest and sometimes unflattering ways. But no, I wouldn’t share the most intimate details without changing the name, situation, etc. first. And when it’s undeniably someone I know, I try to show/explain it to them before publication. I think that’s the only courteous thing to do.

    • I should probably do another post on the share/don’t share question. Most of the feedback I’ve gotten on that is that they do share beforehand, although some don’t. Of those who share, some will only change something that is factually wrong, whereas others will engage in more thorough rewrites to please the individual. You might think it would be situational–different approaches depending on who the person is in the author’s life–but I haven’t found that to be the case.

  7. Thanks for this, Patrick. That’s a tough one. It’s a good reminder that everyone doesn’t have or understand that burning need to write — that would be no defense at all to a hurt person, especially if there is no redeeming quality to the work. This makes it so important not to reveal too much about another person lightly, and also to be sure of your facts (although, as you point out, everything is colored by our own perspectives and even in nonfiction perception is different for different people). When you talk about changing names or sex to obscure an identity, you are talking just about works of fiction, right? You wouldn’t do that in a memoir or personal essay, would you? If so, under what circumstances?

    • Hi Suzanne. I was referring to fiction for the most part in terms of changing names and sex. I’ll note, however, that some memoirists will change a name, or combine two minor characters into one, etc. There is a debate on whether you should do that at all, but some say you can do this a wee bit if you explain up front that you have done so. In Edward Abbey’s brilliant Desert Solitaire, he tells us he has combined two summers into one, and changed a couple of characters’ names and created a few composite characters. Knowing that going in, I’m able to enjoy the story and not feel betrayed.

  8. What you want to know is, “Is it more important to feed my ego and get strokes from my fellow artists than it is for me to be a human being?”

    Okay, I get that talking about child abuse is important. Do that.

    But so much of the “emotional abuse” I see artists groaning about is nothing more than the fact that their parents, husband, whatever, were human and therefore, not perfect. Not perfect enough to please the artists, at least.

    The depth of the selfishness and ego required to “memoir-ize” someone else–it dazzles me, stuns me. Pull off your own scabs. Examine your own fascinating pus. Leave other people’s injuries alone.

    No wonder artists are famously lonely and unappreciated and suffer multiple marriages and alienated children. Who wants to risk ending up on the wrong end of a pissed off or blocked writer? “Gee, I have no ideas, I think I’ll eviscerate Aunt Edna. My professor will love it!”

    For those who worship at the altar of “brutal honesty” I have nothing but the contempt reserved usually for brats who amuse themselves by pulling the wings off butterflies. It’s worse–it’s cannibalism.

    So, put me down as a NO. No, I won’t do it, and no, I don’t have any trouble figuring it out.

    Would you like for your sister or son to do it to you?

    • Thank you for this post. This is exactly what I have not heard anyone say at these panel discussions. I believe it is exactly what the recipient of an unflattering profile would say.

      That said, I still find myself moved by memoirists who share themselves, and often come off looking worse than those they expose to the light. And it pleases not just their professor, but me as a reader. So I continue to be torn, but I’m going to keep your voice in my head as I write, as a reminder.

  9. This is a complicated question. In my memoir there are some who are still alive, and their portrayal isn’t flattering. I have to consider changing some names because I don’t want their children impacted. Even my kids are a bit nervous about what I’m writing about (they don’t know the whole scope) and the book isn’t about them, but about my past. I just have to write it the best I can and figure out the publication issues later. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Hi Heather,

      I believe Alter said she changed some names, but couldn’t do it with everyone, because in some cases it would simply be too easy to do a Google search and figure out who the people really are. (And to a discussion above, if you change names, you need to say up front you have done so.)

      And here’s my favorite comment line so far: “I just have to write it the best I can and figure out the publication issues later.” That’s what I’m doing!

  10. Patrick, so glad you wrote this excellent post; thank you so much for writing this.

    I know I’ve struggled with this issue for a very long time, and it’s stopped me from progressing with my memoir. A few years ago, I broached the subject with my mother briefly, and she simply told me to go ahead and write what I felt I had to, with a shrug. I will admit I was surprised, but still I hesitate. I’ve carried quite a bit around with me inside for so long, it feels strange but definitely cathartic to unpack them and examine them by writing it out. I guess I’ll just write and tackle the other issues later when and if I have a manuscript ready for possible publication.

    • I would say you are fortunate that your mother gave you a green light. Sure, she shrugged, but wouldn’t we all, if our child said they were going to write a memoir? Some of us might do more than that. And like Heather above, I think you have it right, in terms of worrying about publication when it’s time to worry about it. And thank you for the kind words!

  11. Jose Angel Araguz Reply April 28, 2012 at 11:52 am

    Your article brought to mind the poet Arthur Rimbaud’s advice “I is another” which places the writing at a distance from the writer. Writing, in general, is a scary business, no?

  12. Mary Cronk Farrell Reply April 28, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    Interesting discussion… When my children were young I wrote a regular newspaper column on family issues and it usually included anecdotes about my kids and my marriage. I was honest and sometimes brutally so– concerning my own faults or mistakes. In anecdotes about my marriage, I always showed my husband in a good light. I wrote about challenges with my children, but always about what I learned through dealing with them.

    This style worked well for me. I wrote the column for eight years, then told my editor, “I need to quit because my kids are teenagers now–the stories are no longer cute or funny.” My kids were old enough where it wasn’t fair for their lives to be splashed in the newspaper anymore.

    I always believed my writing had a depth and passion that touched people because I was writing honestly about my own journey.

    • You hit on something in writing that column that others have talked about, how truly honest writing shines a brighter light on oneself than on others. Now you made a conscious effort to ensure you didn’t “sell out” your loved ones, and I admire you for that, but by being “brutally” honest with yourself, I do believe your writing was able to touch people. What a great experience you had.

      • Mary Cronk Farrell Reply April 29, 2012 at 2:55 pm

        Thanks, Patrick. And thanks again for facilitating this discussion. Each situation is unique. Wrestling with this question brings about a deeper honesty in the work.

  13. What a thought-provoking piece! Fiction writers also struggle with this issue; I certainly have. I believe the ultimate test for what we tell and how we tell it may come down to motivation: it’s one thing to write true; it’s another thing entirely to write for revenge or sensationalism or because we think it’s what sells.

    I used to do a creative exercise with my writing students where they were asked to write down the principal characteristics of three very different people, one of whom had to be himself/herself, and then combine their traits into one character. It helps the writer to fictionalize, yes, but the point is that all of our characters are reflections of ourselves and those closest to us in one way or another. Maybe some writers can pluck characters out of thin air, but I think many rely on personal experience and memory as catalysts for what they write. It’s fun to start a story from an observation–an overheard conversation, someone who passes us on the street, a photograph–but until the invention of the story becomes emotionally relevant, I don’t think it’s going anywhere.

    My strongest fiction has come out of the most painful experiences. When a story goes flat or just isn’t working, if I’m honest, it’s because I haven’t invested enough of myself in it. I’m holding back my own “truth,” sometimes subconsciously, maybe, because I’m afraid I’m going to hurt someone. There are tricks to fictionalizing what “really” happened. The funny thing is, people may “recognize” something about themselves in a character that was never intended by the writer.

    So my bottom line is, tell the story, and tell it true–whatever truth of human nature begs to be conveyed. The truth of any story, fictional or not, is much larger than whether it’s drawn from real life.

    This is a “keeper” article. I’ll refer back to it, I’m sure. Thanks.

    • What a great comment, Gerry. So much to seize on here.

      I agree with your assessment that the narrative lacks momentum without emotional investment. It’s interesting to hear that your own fiction is “flat” if you’re holding yourself back a bit; that is, of course, no different than memoir, and it makes sense that it would be no different. It is creative storytelling, after all.

      Fascinating that people sometimes see themselves in a character when the author didn’t intend it. That raises so many questions: Did the author add it subconsciously? Is the reader seeing something in the character that the author did not see in the reader?

  14. Thanks so much for this extensive and thoughtfully written post. In my Women Writing for (a) Change – VT groups, we have just been grappling with this very issue. It’s a toughie, no doubt about it.

    As (primarily) as poet, I find it easier to condense sentiments and use metaphor in lieu of identifying people and/or situations. I have also been blessed with supportive and open-hearted family who want me to speak truth in public. Those who do not ‘get’ my writing never ‘got’ me, either.

    I learned very early on that our views of the same interaction were wildly different. If I never wrote MY story out of fear of their misinterpretation, it would never happen. And of course – they are always free to write THEIRS!!! That said, my writing mentor Mary Pierce Brosmer taught me that writing with compassion – for mysef and my subject(s) – was the key to doing it authentically. No finger-pointing. Just honesty that by necessity means owning my part in the story.

    I will continue to ponder these challenging concepts, with gratitude for your putting them out there for us to consider.

    • Yup, I’ve heard a number of writers on these panels say, “You can write your own book.” And that’s true. But I like what your mentor taught you about compassion. The subject of the writing likely will take offense regardless of how the story is presented, but if it is told compassionately, it is less likely other readers will judge that individual as poorly after reading it.

      I was thinking about poets while writing this, as well as songwriters, and wondering about the particular challenges they face with fewer words and more reliance on metaphor. Thanks for sharing your experience.

      I’m glad you found this post thought-provoking.

    • Mary Cronk Farrell Reply April 29, 2012 at 2:57 pm

      Sarah— So true. Writing with compassion the key to authenticity. Thank you for stating this so clearly.

  15. I, too, wrestled with this issue when writing my memoir (Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother). I believe strongly in safe-guarding people’s privacy and that I should not impose my version of the past on others. Yet I had to write this memoir, not to pull off my own scabs or toot my own horn, but to bring out the reality behind the stereotypes. My reality, anyway, which is of course what a memoir is.

    I think combining characters is not honest, but I did change the name of those who did not explicitly agree to let me use their name. I sought my children’s permission before I even started writing. I tried to treat everyone, even those who behaved badly, with compassion.

    The only person I was worried about was my mother, partly because she doesn’t come off all that well and partly because I was telling family secrets she had spent her life hiding. I decided the book was worth the risk. In the end, though, it took so long to find a publisher that she passed away before it came out. She never knew I was writing it. Her cousin and closest friend read it, though, and said that my mother would have liked her story to be told.

    • Barbara, I liked so much what you say here about memoir: “My reality, anyway, which is of course what a memoir is.” Each person’s reality, even in shared circumstances, is going to be different. I want to clarify one thing, in case you read my comment above about combining characters. I was speaking of combining character traits as an exercise to help beginning writers create characters. I agree with you that combining characters would be terribly dishonest in a memoir!

    • Mary Cronk Farrell Reply April 29, 2012 at 3:00 pm

      Beautiful, Barbara. Thanks for sharing. Hiding family secrets takes so much energy. I like to think at the end of her life, your mother might have been relieved to be able to stop the pretense.

    • Thank you, Barbara. Like Gerry, I appreciate the way you frame it as your own reality as honestly as you can tell it. We’ll never know what your mother’s reaction would have been, but it’s clear from this story that she would have at least known that her reaction mattered to her daughter, and that her daughter had put a lot of care and thought and love into that issue when writing it. Perhaps that is all we can ask when others write about us.

      • Isn’t this the heart of memoir? The specific (differing) realities of each of us? To me that’s what makes them so interesting.

        What an amazing prompt/exercise it would be to have each member of a family write their own version of a particular event – say, one fraught with alligators in the annals of the family’s history. I’ll bet you’d have a hard time reconciling them as the same event!!!

        In my own family, we found writing poetry a great help in processing the loss of one of our children. Even the siblings wrote. It has provided not only healing for each of us, but inspiration for others in similar situations, as we have shared our writings both privately and in the context of teaching medical-school students (second and third-year, residents) through our words. Powerful in whatever form.

        • How beautiful that poetry was able to help you with such a difficult loss. “Powerful in whatever form” indeed. Thank you for sharing that.

          And I will now confess that I want to try the family version exercise with my own family. I might even get a personal essay out of it!

          • For sure you will, Patrick! Be sure to let me see it when you’re done. New blog post?!!!

          • Mary Cronk Farrell Reply May 1, 2012 at 12:11 am

            Sarah,
            Yes, beautiful that poetry provided healing in your time of sorrow. We have lost two children in our neighborhood. The depth of grief carves one’s soul into a new form.
            I enjoyed checking out your website: Women Writing for (a) Change ®, but the link for your personal website did not work.

  16. I’ve been struggling with this one for quite a while now in the memoir I’m working on. The only family member still alive, my sister, vehemently opposes me mentioning her struggle with our mother and her suicide attempt as a teenager. I think it’s important to include so I’ve chosen to divulge not all of the details but just enough so that the reader gets it, that our mother was a tyrant and drove us to doing things we would’ve never done otherwise.

    It’s hard to make everyone happy and in the process leave out a piece that renders my story incomplete. It’s a fine line that all writers of memoir and essay have to decide whether to cross or not… I think I’ll cross it.

    Thank you, Patrick, for your thought provoking post.

    • Hi Kristi,

      Thank you for sharing this. You are telling a story of pain from your past, but you are also living a new story now with your sister.

      I’m struck by this line:

      “It’s hard to make everyone happy and in the process leave out a piece that renders my story incomplete.”

      I suspect that the key is that you could leave out details about your sister, but not leave out a piece of the overall story. By that I mean that you capture an honest portrait of the household, your mother and your and your sister’s relationship to her. If as a reader I truly get that relationship, then I won’t miss an incident or detail left out because I won’t know that was there. It is a fine line, and a challenge, I think.

  17. I tend NOT to write about real people, Patrick, but people I know nonetheless sometimes say they see themselves in a piece I’ve written; I almost think they desire so strongly to believe I am thinking/writing about them that they will latch onto any familiar mention or scene in my prose or storyline and imagine it’s there because of them. It’s horribly irritating!

    I like the old wisdom/safeguard of giviing any character that draws from real life tiny…erm…parts, or maybe just a bad habit of public nose picking, in an effort to head off any claim to be the person said character was based upon.

    • Thanks, Cynthia. I find it interesting that others keep seeing themselves in your prose. On some level that could be the vanity in all of us. But is it possible that, on occasion, something about who they are or what they may have once said or done influenced that writing, perhaps subconsciously? We are, after all, writing what we know. I’m curious if you ever stop to consider if they’re on to something.

      • Oh, certainly something may have crept in; I do readily acknowledge that. The alchemy that happens in the brain of a writer during the creative process is almost impossible to explain to non-writers.

        Anything that happens in the life around me can creep into my writing. It doesn’t mean if I write a story about a character fishing with an old man that I am writing about my father that I used to fish with (for instance). People who are not writers don’t ‘get’ this. They think it HAS to be a story about my father, and the other character MUST be me.

        There are only so many experiences we can have in the real world, so of course our characters are going to have some of the same experiences, and do and say some of the same things. I have honestly never written anything where the character was a thinly disguised person I know. But I have heard others say they do this.

        Personally I think all my characters are more likely based on some aspect of myself. THERE’S vanity for you! Haha!

        Great topic, BTW. Loads of good comments.

        • The fishing analogy is a good one, and yes, you’ve hit on part of the theme of this post, that writers and non-writers have different perspectives on the craft of writing and, thus, on the output.

          And I don’t know if it’s vanity to say your characters are based on yourself; I think that’s a sign of a writer, period! :)

  18. Hey Patrick I love this discussion, but I don’t have any answers. I’m still taking baby steps with my writing and am not yet braver enough to ‘shed my clothes’ and use a scalpel on myself, so to speak. Or even cut too hard at others’ wounds. Maybe one day. Thanks anyway to you all for making me think.

    • Funny you phrase it as a cutting scalpel, Jim. I have been wrestling with this notion of putting myself on the page throughout my MFA program (and have written about it a bit on this site), and in a personal essay I wrote recently, I noted that the word “share” comes from the plowshare, the blade of the plow that cuts through the earth. A fitting metaphor, I think!

  19. I take a little bit of everyone I know and mix it all in a soup and sometimes I take an actual experience and make it another characters’s. It just comes out that way, I swear I can’t control it when I’m tapping away. If you actually lose friends along the way, then were they really friends? I think, a writer has to speak the truth and sometimes (most of the times) you step on everyone’s toes and if they choose to walk with you for it, then they can forgive…how many friends can say they were written about?
    Nice post!

  20. This is the number one problem I hear from people writing memoirs: they don’t know how to not sell out their friends and family and write the truth. Makes me glad I write fiction. I do write about my family and friends on my blog at times, in a guarded sort of way. I write about them without linking directly to them (most of them don’t have websites anyway) and that lends a measure of privacy. But publishing a book in which all is confessed is a toughie, as is evidenced by the number of comments you’ve gotten on your marvelous post. Hope you do the thesis on it.

  21. Well you know… just because you write about someone and that person knows it doesn’t mean everyone else does. There may be offense, but there’s no humiliation in writing every detail of an encounter you’ve had with a real person, but under a different name and in a different setting.

    Now, there’s just the ruined personal relationship to deal with after someone discovers what you truly think of them.

    I love the idea of writing in full technicolor about real, true experiences as they really, truly happened in our eyes… but our deepest, darkest thoughts are not able to be read by others for good reason.

    • “[J]ust because you write about someone and that person knows it doesn’t mean everyone else does.” A great point. Kate above says some people think they’re in her fiction when she insists they’re not. The point to build off of that is that people often are looking hard for themselves, not so much for other people.

      “Now, there’s just the ruined personal relationship to deal with after someone discovers what you truly think of them.” This would seem to be where conversation before publication comes in. Hopefully some damage could be mitigated.

      “I love the idea of writing in full technicolor about real, true experiences as they really, truly happened in our eyes… but our deepest, darkest thoughts are not able to be read by others for good reason.” Again, you nailed it. Ultimately, a writer has to decide who they are writing for. It’s a balance among yourself, your imagined readership, and those who might see themselves in your prose. You have to go in knowing it won’t always be easy for others to read.

  22. I’m late to the party here, but wanted to say I appreciate this discussion. So many times I hear writers talk about the need to be “brave” in one’s nonfiction writing. It’s offensive to me that people so often think considering other people’s feelings is simply a matter of courage and that being willing to hurt others for art is always brave. Here’s what it boils down to for me: is the story important enough that it’s worth it to cause others pain? If so, forge ahead fearlessly. If not, I’ll choose being the person I want to be over the writer I want to be.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. MFA Nugget: Still More on Writing About People in Your Life « The Artist's Road - July 2, 2012

    [...] of how we write about people who are alive, and how they may not take well to what we write (see my recent blog post on this topic, and the insightful comments it [...]

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