An article in WritersWeekly about relatives who don’t want to be characters in your stories (Karen Carver, “When Relatives Say, ‘Don’t Write About Me!'”, October 25, 2006) made me stop and think about the times I have gone ahead and written about whomever I wanted, without regard to how they might feel about it. I have frequently penned (and published) pieces in which friends, relatives, colleagues, bosses and others were featured players. So far there have been no complaints, only some differences of opinion as to what really happened. They could be right; I’m abundantly aware of memory’s nature as the most unreliable of narrators.
There is always the risk of offending people when you write about them. Frank McCourt has written openly about his daughter’s anger with him for writing about her; his response at that time was “too bad.” Not all of us are willing to lose our families for the sake of our art; so how do we get around including the people in our lives in the stories of our lives? Here are some ways I have handled it:
1. Write the piece two ways: one in which you tell it like it is, another in which you omit identifying details. This is a great exercise in creativity (and after all, we are dealing with “creative nonfiction” or as William Zinsser coined it, “inventing the truth”). I have often found that re-creating a character by changing names and particulars frees me to delve more deeply into the essence of what I wanted to say in the first place. Was it really specifically about cousins Larry, Susan and Judy initiating me into the joys of destroying our grandfather’s hydrangea bush (uh-oh, now I’m gonna get it!), or was it more about what I was feeling inside of me as I stomped on the tenderly cultivated flowers? I could describe generically how we all laughed evilly as we threw petals on each other, finger one of the four of us (not me!) as the instigator, describe what everyone was wearing and how our hair looked…or I can speak about my cousins generically (in such a way that cousins Steven, Iris and Michelle on the other side of the family might wonder why they don’t remember this) and focus on the exhilaration and inclusion I felt, the nascent fear and remorse that lurked beneath the fun, the sound of loud, angry adult voices, and the punishing sting and red branding of the Mercurochrome my mother painted on my scratches.
2. Use a stand-in. A long time ago I published a piece about a teacher of mine. It was not a flattering portrait. I changed everything about her but her gender, and in retrospect I could have changed that too, because the memoir was not about her specifically but about my realization that being a protege is not all it’s cracked up to be. It was about the shift in our relationship and the realization of how I, as a teacher, took on the same role with my students and would likely create ungrateful monsters like myself who would rightfully need to get free of me. The specifics of who the teacher was had little to do with the story.
3. Call it fiction. James Frey, author of the very creative “memoir” A Million Little Pieces, did not own up to his numerous fabrications and exaggerations and got in more trouble for it than he might have if he had told the whole truth and named names. He could easily have published the book as a novel; thousands have done similarly when they wished to tell a story that, for reasons of integrity or legality, they could not present as factual.
I had an essay published in an e-publication many years ago about my relationship at the time. It was revealing and raw (“too much information!” one friend remarked), and the man in my life would likely not have been pleased to see himself so nakedly portrayed in print (I never shared it with him as we had parted company before it was published). The editor loved the piece but she was concerned about protecting me (and him) and ran it under the heading of “fiction” even though the publication does not run fictional stories. I didn’t understand the need for this; I was young and naive and fueled by McCourt-like bravado. Today, if I had to do it over again I would have submitted the piece to a fiction market, since it is never my intention to be intrusive or unkind when I write about the people in my life…only to express my truth.
Of course, by its very nature, writing is a lie. The combination of embellished or selective memory and the near impossibility of accurately putting experience into words means that we are never telling it the way it happened; we are telling our interpretation of what happened. We see and write about people as projections; never as who they really are. No matter how truthful I try to be, I have never written a true word about anyone. What I say about them can only be about myself. Realizing that not everyone holds that understanding, I may choose to be very diplomatic — or very creative — in how I tell the story of “us.”
Author and facilitator Carol L. Skolnick writes about the life of the mind as well as the writer’s life. Visit her blog at https://www.soulsurgery.blogspot.com to read past articles from her e-newsletter, Transformational Inquiry.
READER SENDS IN INTERESTING COMMENT/CORRECTION ABOUT THIS ARTICLE
The following excerpt is from Today’s e-zine article: “Relatively
Speaking, It’s Not You, It’s Me By Carol L. Skolnick”
“Call it fiction. James Frey, author of the very creative “memoir” A
Million Little Pieces, did not own up to his numerous fabrications and
exaggerations and got in more trouble for it than he might have if he had
told the whole truth and named names. He could easily have published the
book as a novel; thousands have done similarly when they wished to tell a
story that, for reasons of integrity or legality, they could not present
This is not true. Read the following excerpt from an article
(https://www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/0104061jamesfrey1.html) from the
Smoking Gun, the publication that exposed Frey:
“Of course, if “A Million Little Pieces” was fictional, just some
overheated stories of woe, heartache, and debauchery cooked up by a
wannabe author, it probably would not get published. As it was, Frey’s
original manuscript was rejected by 17 publishers before being accepted by
industry titan Nan Talese, who runs a respected boutique imprint at
Doubleday (Talese reportedly paid Frey a $50,000 advance). According to a
February 2003 New York Observer story by Joe Hagan, Frey originally tried
to sell the book as a fictional work, but the Talese imprint “declined to
publish it as such.” A retooled manuscript, presumably with all the fake
stuff excised, was published in April 2003 amid a major publicity
I had always wondered why Frey didn’t just publish A Million Little
Pieces as fiction. The answer is that fiction is much more difficult to
publish than a memoir in our voyeuristic, reality-entertainment-obsessed
culture. The bottom line is that Frey chose success over integrity. I
naively hope that the literary world, if not the whole world, learns from
Author of Re’enev