Is it possible to use material from your own life in your writing and still be on good terms with your family and friends? That’s the question I’ve been mulling over this last week.
In my current WIP, I have used threads of real scenarios from my own teenage years to stitch together and create a fictional story. The key word in that last sentence is ‘fictional’.
But after successfully using the ‘freefall’ method and going with the flow, suddenly I stopped in my tracks to consider whether I should be using factual memories for the sake of creating a juicy piece of fiction.
Is there ever a case for writing whatever you like without worrying about the effect on others? But if you start to self-censor, where do you stop? Does the writing become so toned down that it lacks power?
I can hide behind the label ‘fiction’ and “the names have been changed to protect the innocent” get-out clause. But how do the writers of memoirs and autobiographies cope with the knowledge that their version of the ‘truth’ might not be palatable for their nearest and dearest? I recently watched an excellent documentary in the BBC One Imagine series, ‘Jeanette Winterson: My Monster and Me’ where the renowned author talks about the cathartic process of writing about her difficult relationship with her mother. After the publication of ‘Oranges are Not the Only Fruit’, a semi-autobiographical account of Jeanette’s troubled childhood, her mother said to her, “It’s the first time I’ve had to order a book in a false name.”
Is the answer to publish and be damned and simply to advise anyone who feels they might recognise scenes from your writing not to read it? Or at the very least, remind those in your life that it’s fiction, not fact? I think it’s a tricky situation of getting the balance right and telling a good story but without crossing a line of confidentiality.
Have you ever fallen out with family and friends over something you’ve written? Do you self-censor your writing to avoid upsetting anyone in your personal life?
11 thoughts on “Should You Publish and Be Damned?”
Very pertinent to some of my recent blog posts! My general rule of thumb is I have to be able to defend everything I write. I thought hard about how to present the story but I think it’s so important to be honest. And I’d never write just to be vicious. So.
Thanks Pauline. Your writing is very personal so it’s interesting and valuable to hear your ‘rule of thumb’. I agree that the main issue is never to write something out of spite.
Helen, thanks for sharing. In answer to your question about nonfiction and memoirs I’ve just finished writing one myself and the effect the book might have on those who were involved has given me serious pause for thought. Of course, there’s no gauruntee that anyone will read it so that’s one potential way out, but another, for me at least, is the advice that you should only write a book if you absolutely positively have to. Thats how I felt about this and its why I probably wont write another. Also, there was great consolation in actually writing the truth and it certainly made it easier to say ‘Yes, this what these people did.’
Admittedly, none of my family appear in this story, that would have made it harder. I’m surprised to hear Jeanette Winterson found it difficult though, after seeing her interviewed a while back its hard to believe she cares about what anyone thinks!
Hi Helen, great post with thought provoking questions, as usual! As you know, my WIP is creative non-fiction *whispers in a tiny voice – ok, it’s a memoir dahling* and I can totally identify with the issues at hand. I always remember reading somewhere that if you are writing about people you know, or basing characters on them, to make them drop-dead gorgeous – then they won’t care what you write! If only it was that simple! My WIP contains some ugly truths and unveils some rather cobwebby skeletons, for me, but for people in my past too. I keep telling myself it’s ok because it’s the truth and it happened a long time ago… ok, let’s just hope they never read it… 😀
As my writing buddy and knowing you’re writing a memoir, your advice is invaluable. Thanks x
It’s a tricky one. In fiction writing I suppose you can take bits of reality and blend with other bits and so real people and events are just a basis for something new. But in memoirs etc – I suppose you’d have to tell the truth – otherwise what’s the point – and if it’s negative stuff try to maintain a bit of balnce and fairness where possible. Not easy!
It’s tricky indeed Anne! Especially when one person’s ‘truth’ might conflict with others idea of the same ‘truth’. I’m trying to be authentic but know that there’s always the risk of folk contradicting my version of events/details. Wish me luck, I’m going to need it!
I think that overall I try not to worry. One of the themes of several of my books is what life as a clergy spouse can be like (ie NOT a bed of roses as some assume) and since my husband is a minister, I know that people from his parishes have read both by books and my blog. I hope that generally they can understand the difference between fictionalised accounts of real events and MY life. The greater concern really for me is whether they form an opinion of me based solely on my fiction, but I think that’s a risk for all authors.
I think the only person I really would worry about reading one of my books is my mum, and I think in her current state of health it’s unlikely she ever will.
Thanks for sharing your experience Viv. I had reservations about submitting some of my more risque short stories for publication for fear that anyone I know would assume that I was writing from my own experiences. As you say, it’s difficult for some readers to appreciate the difference between fiction and fact just as some folk believe the actors in soaps are real. Best of luck with your writing. I’m off to check out your blog…
I had a novel that was being read by an editor at one of the Big Six about 10 years ago; she rang me the next day having stayed up all night to finish it. The novel had some pretty traumatic stuff in it that was based on experience and she asked whether it had actually happened to me. I said, well, sort of, and explained what was fiction and what was fact. Sad thing is despite it keeping her up all night to find out what happened, they didn’t take it further, citing that it was *too grim* for the slot they might have had for it. Hey ho!
That must have been so frustrating! To be so close to a publishing deal with a major player and having an editor gripped by our novel. My agent sent my last ms round the big publishers and I got feedback of “liked it but didn’t love it enough” so I know how hard it is to be rejected. As you say, hey ho, onward and upwards for us both…