I attended a lecture by fiction and non-fiction writer Karen Karbo a few weeks ago (thank you Tin House Summer Workshop) titled “You Only Hurt the Ones You Love.” Karbo based her lecture–about the struggles of writing non-fiction about or fiction based on real people–on her memoir and her experiences writing it. Titled The Stuff of Life: A Daughter’s Memoir, the book focuses on Karbo’s relationship with her father and the time they spent together before he died.
In the mostly full, refreshingly air-conditioned (this occurred during a week of July heat) lecture hall at Reed, Karbo made the audience laugh and gave us enough wisdom tidbits to cause a flurry of pen scratching. I sat at one of those chairs with the folding desk and scribbled my own frantic notes before her words could evaporate in the air. Damn, did her lecture make me wish I could be a student forever.
Be honest. If you’re a writer, you’ve probably based a character on someone you know/love/hate. I’ve done it. I once wrote about my ex’s ex and probably based a few bitchy characters on a mean former friend from high school. Both of these instances were exceptionally therapeutic. I recently published a non-fiction piece about my ex (it was written while we were still dating) that was both full of love and brutally honest (more on that in next week’s post). Regardless if the piece is non-fiction or if you have cleverly (or not so cleverly) disguised the real person as a fictional character, someone is bound to feel hurt by something in your writing.
People feel hurt when they recognize themselves in your writing because A) you have (hopefully) told the truth about them and B) the truth is scary, especially when it is immortalized in writing. Karen Karbo said it best when she put it this way: “If we say we can’t write about a loved one, what we mean is, we can’t publish it.” It’s true. Writers want to pull those eye-catching quirks from people we know to create fleshed out characters. We want to draw from that too good to be true drama in our lives and make it fiction. But that is easier said than done once it comes to the publishing process. Once those words (those truths, those “this is how I really see you” implications) make it into the world, we can’t go back.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I consider the prospects of writing a novel. In my teens, I based a lot of my short stories on people and events in my life. Most of these stories were self-indulgent dribble. Once I could move outside of myself, I found freedom in writing about male truck drivers or single mothers because the fear of offending people I knew who may recognize themselves in my writing was gone. But, now that I imagine writing a longer work, the events, people, and places that have made up my life seem to be screaming for me to include them in my efforts. I can’t look around and see such an interesting world around me and not want to write about it. As Karen Karbo put it, “We’re writers, this is what we do.”
I guess it’s a fine line we writers have to straddle between writing what we want and not pissing too many people off while we do it. Karbo advised that writers never self-censor and quoted Anne Lamott for some humorous advice on how others should behave around a writer: “If you say you’re a writer, then they should be on their best behavior.”
I’ll keep that in mind the next time I use my relationship with my brother as emotional fodder or play an awkward encounter with an ex for laughs in a story. I will promise this: I will always be honest about myself as well. And if you don’t like how I write about you, then maybe you should act differently.