Writing About People You Know – A Slippery Slope

photo by b_imman

Few things inhibit our writing more than worrying about someone’s reaction to our portrayal of them. Whether we’re basing fictional characters on family and friends  – or in the case of memoir, exposing them completely – we’re often in brutal negotiation between our desire to be truthful and our fear of exploiting someone.

Because as Joan Didion once said,

“Writers are always selling somebody out.”

And that can make even the most intrepid of us jittery. So what do we do? We sabotage what could be our most powerful prose. We diminish the truth. Restrain our voice. Or even worse, crawl back into silence.

But silence is not an option for any writer. And truth has a funny way of exerting itself.

Why you need to tell your story.

Most of us write to heal some broken part of ourselves. To make sense of what’s too painful, confusing or complicated to wrap our arms around. Writing can help us re-frame our past in a new context, allowing us to interpret events in a way that puts control directly into our court.

At a writers conference I once attended, Kathryn Harrison, author of  The Kiss, spoke of writing about her consensual affair with her long lost father with whom she reunited when she was twenty. Obviously this was risky territory. And hardly a flattering portrayal of her father. So why did she write it?

Not to “out” her father. Or to get her comeuppance.

She wrote it because she needed to figure out what had happened to her. To understand what emotional void had sent her down the path that made the affair with her father even possible.

She had to write it, she said, because it became an “untenable burden to live with such a huge formative part of one’s life undisclosed.” It was damaging. And it required an enormous amount of energy to keep so large and toxic a secret locked inside.

Secrets are corrosive. We need to unload them.

And here’s the thing:

We don’t really have a choice in what we write about.

We’re compelled to write about certain things because their understanding continues to elude us. Writing can help us excavate childhood trauma. Heal from a failed relationship. Create poetry, wholeness and staggering beauty out of chaos, heartbreak and confusion. For many of us, writing is salvation itself.

But to write with honesty and power, we need to include the people who had a hand in that journey . Our lives are inextricably linked to the lives of people we’re closest to. And it’s very likely they won’t exactly love your interpretation of them.

So at some point you need to decide if telling your story is worth it or not.

People will get upset with you. They’ll feel offended. Exposed. Angry. Embarrassed.

This will make you feel uncomfortable. Tentative. Skittish. Maybe even guilty.

These are the costs you have to consider. But you can’t write and please everyone at the same time.

So if your story is worth it to you, write it.  Write fearlessly. Truthfully. Write with compassion. For yourself and for your oppressors. Especially your oppressors.

Write as though it will never be read. Or published. Write it for yourself.

Remember, it’s not the truth. It’s your truth.



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