I think you might just be with me to gather experiences to write about later. I bet you have a notebook stashed in a secret place where you jot down pieces of our conversations to use in the book you’ll write someday.
My cousin is a singer/songwriter and I went to see her play a show for her CD release a few weeks ago. My aunt said that she was nervous about performing a few songs, because the subjects of them were in the audience. They didn’t know the songs were about them, of course, but she did. I just shrugged and said that was the liability which comes with knowing writers personally.
They joke, but I think becoming immortalized in fiction – or what is probably much more frightening, nonfiction – is a legitimate secret fear that friends and relatives of writers harbor. That italicized passage is a paraphrase of someone’s actual statement to me about that exact concern. He was joking (I think?) but here it is, immortalized on the Internet. He’s just lucky I haven’t used his name…yet.
Non-writers and friends and relatives of those who are writers might argue that it isn’t fair to be forced to accept such a liability just to be acquainted with a writer. I suppose that’s a valid point. But from where does writing of any kind come if not from life? I think it is inevitable that the people we meet or know more intimately than strangers on the street might find their way into a character we otherwise imagine. In fiction at least, it’s rare that the entire personality of an individual should make up a character we write. In fact, I’d say that’s a crutch – a kind of plagiarism of life.
But to take something small from someone you love – or hate – is, as I said, somewhat unavoidable. The shape of your grandmother’s hands. The musicality of your sister’s laugh. The way your father walks. The feather-light touch of your husband’s fingers in your hair. These are things that make fiction personal and relatable, and drawing from real life only makes it that much more personal and relatable. Of course, if your style of writing is to make things foreign and unfamiliar, then go the other way. This post probably isn’t for you anyway.
There’s this quote I love, something Anne Lamott said:
You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.
There it is. The simple truth. The people most concerned with being written about are the ones whose behavior has not been above board. And it is usually those people who make it into one’s writing somehow – because, hey, killing people off in real life is murder.
I’ll eventually write about my loved ones, friends and family, if I haven’t already. I write from life, and they are, each of them, a very important part of my life. But my loved ones, friends and family, needn’t worry. I love them, and that will bleed into my words.
It’s everyone else that I give leave to worry. Because their concern is no longer any concern of mine (and isn’t that the moment they make it into one’s writing?). Conflict makes for the best stories, and these people have provided plenty of conflict. They know who they are, and they should not, for one peaceful moment, think that I have forgotten them. Like Anne says, they should’ve behaved better.