categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour
People keep asking. “I’ve been writing about my parents and I don’t see how I can publish.” “My daughter has always been sooo sensitive about this stuff—she’s going to kill me.” “The good news is a contract from Scribner. The bad news is that I just realized my PASTOR is going to read this. I mean, ANYONE can read it.” “One of my friends here in [an assisted living facility] has read my book and loved it, but she says no way can I publish it. I’ll be shunned [by the community]. She says all the regular affairs are bad enough but the lesbian stuff. Oy.”
I guess the best advice about writing about people you love or writing the truth about your life if it’s in any way unconventional is: don’t do it.
The second best advice is, okay, do it, but don’t do it out of anger.
The third best (I’m working my way toward the Bad Advice), well, do it, but make a point of protecting yourself and others.
The fourth best: write for people who like you. Anyone who shuns you in assisted living because of what you did fifty and eighty years ago you can do without. Your book, in fact, was just a handy shortcut for getting rid of them!
And the Bad Advice? Well, here it is: Fuck it, it’s your life, too, write what you want.
At least in the early going. No one has to see your drafts but you and your trusted friends, or maybe agent and editor. The drafting phase is your chance to write freely with no thought of a hostile audience or an audience that happens to be your mom. Write your story, write it true and complete, and then put it away, never to be seen again till everyone is long dead.
Or, write your story, write it true and complete, and then revise it so as to not cause pain to people who don’t deserve pain. Lots of ways to do this. One is to read what you’ve written as if you were the person you most feared reading it. That’ll freeze you up fast. But it may point out that only two or three passages in a whole book are really trouble. What can you do to de-trouble those passages? Some can be altered, fudged. Some can be cut with no real detriment to the whole book. Some can be cut and actually leave an atmosphere of the truth that once was there, useful. Other passages turn out to be, well, the whole heart of the book, and leave such a hole when cut that there’s no point. Hey. That’s good material! How brave do you want to be?
Disguises are great. That’s why people use to write autobiographical novels. Your fat family from Des Moines could be depicted as skinny Roma in Hungary, with all the genders reversed yet the basic storyline of whatever horrors and abuse the same as in your actual life.
In a memoir, you can change names, shift geography, make composite characters. But if you’re writing about family, well, it’s hard to disguise your mother. Like, “My mother was a very tall, thin, Chinese man from Soo Chow.” I mean, your mom’s your mom.
And how about writing about your children? Fascinating. Especially those that end up in jail or worse. But how do you do it? You make angels of them, that’s how. Everyone will understand. And that one flaw can be slipped in as a compliment of sorts. “Riley was a genius with firearms, the best in his class, and the most tattooed. Even without teeth his smile was winning.”
Oh jeez, my son’s going to kill me on that one. Sorry Riley.
Often, when newer writers ask me about this, or say, “I’m so worried what my brother will think.” I catch a funny whiff of guilt, and hear what they’re saying as “I am still not capable of being honest about my role in this troublesome episode and/or relationship I propose to write about.” Fine—often in the drafting they see themselves, and sometimes that’s when a book gets interesting.
Or when the newer writer says, “I really don’t harbor any ill will, it’s just a story that must be told.” I hear, “I want revenge—this person I propose to write about has won in some way, beaten me out in the game of life, and deep inside I know I’m being petty (or worse) and that makes me even madder, so needing a victim who isn’t me, I need your teacherly permission to build me a little predator drone and blast a couple of black jeeps off the sands of the desert of my emotional life.”
Predator drones are so expensive, and often kill the wrong person.
One further strategy, not always recommended (note the passive voice—I’m scared here) is to give the draft to the person in question, saying, “This is going to be published.” Or more flexibly, “I’m thinking of publishing this.” Or more yet: “I need your help with this thing I’m writing.” (Hopefully not having to add: “I know we haven’t talked for forty years.” Though that’s interesting, too.) Sometimes—and I’ve seen this happen—your subject will come back after reading and surprise you: they’ll love it, no matter how negative, adore it, feel flattered, seen, understood, cared about, loved. Because the truth is the truth. Sometimes, your subject will come with all those feelings, but also some corrections and a bruise or two to discuss. Sometimes, on the other hand, it’s all bruises and a lawsuit will be threatened. Because the truth is relative. Especially among relatives.
Another, more journalistic, approach is to interview your people. Let’s say it’s your sister. Get her side, and make use of her side in your pages. Just lay the two views out there, let the reader decide. (Or make it seem that’s what you’re doing. You’re the writer, you’re in charge of perceptions.) So, after a hot passage, why not something like, “My sister disagrees.” And then quote her, even at length, even let her tell the same story over again entirely. The reader will know whom to trust. Let’s hope it’s you.
People are very complex, made up of 10,000 facets and traits. Characters are simple (especially in Shakespeare), made of 100 facets at most, though even two or three can work. You can pick your way through the 10,000 facets of a real person and deliver the truth in a character made of the 100 facets that do the job you need to do without doing the job you don’t need to do. That’s been my strategy. Make a fond portrait. Use some humor. Don’t shrink from the story, but find the most loving path through. Show the clothes folded neatly in the drawer, not the dirty laundry. Same garments, same message, just a fresher path, and rainwater soft.
And listen, if someone awful isn’t really important to the story, leave ’em out. An example, just making it up from vague memory, a memoir about a family business: “My brother Jim, a stupid, lying drug addict, never had anything to do with the restaurant.”
Then again, if your grandfather was a sexual predator and evil and accounts for your story, you’ve got the truth on your side. He didn’t protect you, no need to protect him.
Of course it’s not all family. You might want to write about your doctor, your priest, your catty baseball buddies, your drunken knitting circle. In all cases, the reaction of your people is pretty much a moot point until you publish (which is to say, make public—so many ways to do this now). So don’t let worries about the future dispensation of the work shut you down on the writing end. If it’s worth writing, it’s worth writing for your eyes only. If it’s going to be for others, well, all in good time. Even small adjustments can make all the difference. And when the time actually comes, you’ll get a legal reading from your publisher. Let them tell you what to leave out. And use your own lawyer, too. Take out insurance. Don’t publish in England. And above all, don’t listen to me.
Finally I guess, the truth is your best protection. Write what you know and can prove, write what you recall when there isn’t proof to the best of your recollection, and do what you can to check up on yourself. Carefully write from your point of view, and be sure to write about yourself and your reactions and your flaws, not only about others. Refrain from judgment. Just tell the stories, make them true, and leave the rest to the reader.
I don’t have a son, by the way.