In this week’s question, Dr. Sue addresses the dangers of writing what you know (again, it has to do with other people! Why do writers always seem to come up against this “other people” issue??). This is something I grapple with often, especially as someone who writes mostly nonfction. Personal essays about my life necessarily involve other people, real people who know exactly who I’m talking about when they show up in my work. This is especially tricky when it comes to writing about my children — one of whom now is old enough to read my stuff and take issue with it. How much is too much to say? How personal is too personal? What, really, is essential to my story, and what is just poaching off someone else’s? Believe it or not, I don’t publish everything I write, or even write about everything I’d like to publish. I’m squeamish about that gray area where the personal gets too personal, where the writing is more cathartic or therapeutic than in service of a story I’m trying to tell. Sometimes not writing about something too personal involving someone else quite personally is for the best; other times I think, crap, that’s SUCH a great story, and I can never write it! (Because, really, what’s the point of having a crazy family or a crazy life if you can’t use it for material?) Dr. Sue’s questioner asks:
- I am writing a novel featuring a good friend as the main character. Basically, I took her life and gave it a twist, an ugly twist. While much of it is not true, there are truthful elements to it that I’m sure she will recognize and be offended by. I am debating whether or not to pursue the publication of this story. If I do, I might lose her friendship. What should I consider and what should I do?
I think sometimes nonfiction writers can get so wrapped up in the story we’re telling that we forget these “characters” are real people (or based on real people) — that’s happened to me a few times on my own blog (remember the woman in the elevator who turned out to be friends with someone who read my blog and wrote to me later to say she read the entry about her? the Oobi guy?). Things are a bit less gray with fiction, but even there drawing on the personal too much can get you in trouble. I worked on a manuscript last year in which one of the main characters was very much based on someone I knew in college. Sure, there were details that I changed, things I threw in that this person would never, ever do, character traits that didn’t match up. But at the very basic level, this character was inspired by this real life person, and the whole time I worked on it I wondered if it was fair to write something based on someone who might recognize themselves if they read it. Luckily for my old college friend, no one’s jumped at the chance to publish it, so I don’t have to confront the question asked of Dr. Sue today. Read her wise-as-always answer here.