Tuesday, March 20, 2018

IS IT ALL RIGHT TO WRITE ABOUT PEOPLE YOU KNOW?

We frame our reality is stories. We remember life’s occurrences not in the continuous minute details of everyday, but as episodes, or chapters. Memories become the fictional story of life, a subjective interpretation of objective reality.


Thus, fiction and non-fiction tread a fine line. A writer who conjures imaginative stories may believe her telling has little to do with people who have crossed her path.


I always write about what I know. Let me put it here. Every character I’ve ever written (and I only write fiction) had a connection to someone or someoneS I know or knew.
But they always wound up so changed that they were no longer, factually, those people. That’s the beauty and the truth of fiction. It allows shaping people/characters in service of the greater story.


When my father read a very early draft of THE VOICE OF THUNDER, he bristled at the actions and sayings of Mira’s father.
“I would never say or think that way,” he said.
“But Mira’s father isn’t you,” I said.
“People would think he is,” he said.
“But he ISN’T,” I said.

My literate, poet father, who understood the power of fiction better than most, also understood how blurry the line would be for most readers. Even if the story were never published, some friends and beta readers would have read it. He was right, because many of them clearly did not make the distinction.

I then went into my frustrated mode and said the unthinkable. I quoted Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird)
     “A writer should write as if their parents are dead,” I said.
     “But I’m not dead,” my father said.

My father died some years later, and before the story had a publisher.



Herein lies the dilemma. You should write what you know. What you know are the people and stories you know. But you should not kill anyone real in the process.

The way I have managed telling the truth in my fiction is to begin from what I know and then let it be sufficiently different, let it sail away, to where only the unimaginative would insist it is a memoir. (And, by the way, everyone is entitled to write an honest memoir, also. I just never did.)



When it comes to non-fiction posts mentioning real life family members or friends, (such as this blog's posts, comments on social media, or articles) I follow the golden rule. I will not speak of others as I hope they will not speak of me. If I need to say something unflattering, I will disguise the person beyond recognition.


Fiction is liberating. I especially like magical realism, where the story can fully manifest and the theme can glow because listeners/readers are unlikely to confuse it with real life. There I get to tell it like it truly is, or at least as I understand it.


I welcome your thoughts on this, as a writer or a reader.

14 comments:

  1. Mirka, I feel your pain. From the very beginning I was writing about my family, sometimes thinly disguised, sometimes not at all, and sometimes the characters evolved to the point they were their own people (I love this the best). But I digress.

    By now, everybody in my family knows that they're fair game :) Once my kids got over the glee of being stars in mommy's stories, they'd tell me occasionally to not write about certain events. I respect their wishes. But they enjoy the drama on the page they've inspired. They grin over knowing what's real and what's not.

    I would not hurt anybody deliberately. Fiction gives us the opportunity to speak the truth in the fantastical lie. I also write memoir and if it were to hurt someone I would change the details so that they wouldn't even recognize themselves.

    And that's a great cartoon! Did you make it?

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    1. Well said.
      As to the cartoon, I wish I knew who did make it. I would give them credit. (Someone sent it to me long ago.) It's very much how I feel about living among writing/blogging folks.

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  2. I have a related but slightly different spin on this. I have the problem where readers think because one of my MCs did something, I would or have done the same. I'm not my main characters. In my first book, my MC and I shared two things: a birthday and accident-prone tendencies. That was it. But I was judged by readers for things she did. I'm not her. She is not me. I think it's important for readers to remember there is a difference between the author and the MC.

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    1. Unless you write fiction yourself, you would not understand how this process works and how characters are not the writer, even if/when they began in a similar setting.

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  3. I've written a couple of stories that were based heavily on personal experiences, but most of what I write does not contain anybody who resembles a person I know in real life. But I agree with what you say about our imaginary characters being influenced, probably more than we're aware, by our personal interactions with people we know.

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  4. I wish I could remember the exact quote or who wrote it, but this is approximately it: "If people want me to write about them more flatteringly, they should behave better."

    I haven't run across this problem exactly yet. But before publishing my poetry (fictional parody and satire) book, my lawyer had me talk to another lawyer who specialized in intellectual property. (Some people like to sue for no good reason, although parody and satire are protected under the copyright law.) So there's another thing to worry about... :-)

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    1. "Some people like to sue for no good reason"---
      Ah, well. Humanity has some scourges, and this is one.

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  5. I sometimes use real incidents in my work, but I don't think any of my characters were ever taken from people I know. Like everyone is saying, though, readers often think everything in a book is real. I've been called my character's name, asked if it's me or my daughter on the cover, and asked about living in the fictitious location I invented. I think this happens even more when writing in first person.

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    1. Indeed.
      Even close friends continue to insist on confusing thus. An example: the other day a good friend who has asked me about my childhood and should know better repeated that I grew up with religiously observant neighbors because the main character in my published novel did. I never saw a sabbath candle lighting until I was an adult and living in the united states. I reminded her of this (for the upteenth time) and she seemed baffled. "I could swear you told me about these neighbors..." she said.

      And variations happen all the time.

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  6. I can't NOT write about my family, in one form or another. Each of my books, novels included, was inspired by a family member or more. Fortunately, I have a very liberal, understanding, and forgiving family!

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    1. I loved your Uncut Diamonds and House of Diamonds novels, which felt like fictional biographies. But from my own writing experience, I am aware they are not really. Can't wait for another in this series.

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  7. The older I get the more I realize we all remember things differently; each of us from our own POV. One of my novels is somewhat autobiographical (from my childhood), and I really felt that writing it was therapeutic. Most of my characters are composites of people I've met/encountered or known, I suppose; I've certainly branched out from real-life incidents in my writing, adding twigs and leaves to mask the truth, maybe?

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    1. You've raised the matter of what is , i.e. perspective. Reminds me of the famous song from Gigi--

      "We met at nine,
      we met at eight,
      I was on time,
      no, you were late
      Ah, yes, I remember it well
      We dined with friends,
      we dined alone,
      a tenor sang,
      a baritone
      Ah, yes, I remember it well…"

      [1958 Lyrics : Alan Jay Lerner / Frederick Loewe]

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