When you’re a writer, the people you have relationships with soon realize they could very well end up in your writing. If you write fiction, then there is always “I swear it isn’t based on you!” Funny thing, most fiction writers I know say that reactions are never what they prepare for. They could write something based on their mother and their mother has no idea or at least pretends to have no idea. Meanwhile their BFF from high school will call them in a rage, “How could you write THAT about me?”
When you write nonfiction however, it’s clear who you’re writing about – for better or for worse. What’s more, you can’t actually avoid it – ever. When I’m working on my memoir I’m telling my life’s story or at least part of it. And since I wasn’t isolated in a dark room without human contact for years, that is bound to include relatives, beaus past and present etc. It’s the same when writing a personal essay. Personal essays are just snapshots of an experience or collection of related experiences, but it’s bound to include others. You can’t not include someone central to your story because then you’re lying. You can’t portray them exactly how they’d like because this isn’t a press release about how wonderful they are. You have to be fair and truthful, but being the person holding a mirror saying, “look at how I honestly see you/your actions” is not going to make you the belle of the ball.
While I’ve been a writer all my life (it’s a calling more than a profession), I’ve only started submitting pieces in the last year, so instead of having decades of experiences, I have less than a year of dealing with hurt feelings, passive-aggressive actions and at times, ultimatums. And ironically, the pieces that have elicited reactions are the tamer “how did you manage to make this about you” projections. It’s not like an abusive ex has stumbled upon my writing. Or my mother. Now that would be it’s own kind of awful.
I feel like I have as good of a handle on it as I can. I have strict rules for myself. I don’t write about someone unless they’re crucial to that scene/story. But once I’ve decided to include them, I don’t think about their potential reactions because I don’t want it to influence the writing. It’s like writing something with them perched on your shoulder – you’ll never accurately say whatever you need to say. I don’t tell people I’ve written about them unless I submit a piece and it’s accepted for publication. Once it’s accepted then I inform them as a courtesy. I’ll let them read a piece in advance if they like. This is all assuming I have a relationship with this person. If I don’t, like in the case of the ex, I am certainly not contacting them for anything.
If I am writing something that I feel will hurt someone (even if that’s not the intention) and I care about them, then I will sometimes have them read it, or give them the option before submitting. This is in the case where I feel my work isn’t important. By important, I mean helpful. For me, I write as a method to help others. To move them, make them feel less alone, to promote change, etc. If a piece is more about a varied writing clip/by-line on my resume, I’m more likely to hold it back, if I’m asked. I’m constantly weighing the potential good with the potential fallout. Whichever is greater, usually wins.
Still, it doesn’t always make things easy. (It rarely even makes things easier.) I have relatives who I don’t write about, who get angry that I’ve written about someone else. If I write about Aunt Sue, I’m not going to tell our second cousin. Why? If I tell anyone, I’ll tell Aunt Sue. But so far it’s been the second cousin in this example that has ended up enraged. I realize it’s more about them, less about me, and more about something deeper they are dealing with, than what I actually wrote.
Still it’s hard. I don’t write about fuzzy bunnies. I write about dying and death (I have died before, and been near-death even more times than I’ve actually kicked that proverbial bucket). I write about abuse, child and partner, mental and physical. I write about sexual assault, homophobia, bigotry and acts of hate/violence/prejudice. I turn the harsh light on myself as much as anyone else, but this doesn’t change others’ perception or potential hurt.
Like my father. I did not have an actual relationship with my father for several years. As a kid growing up, he abandoned me with my abusive mother. He knew she was beating me, and told me I deserved it. A lot of my emotional baggage was given to me by him, rather than her. In 2012, I told him he needed to own what he had done in order for us to have a relationship. I told him that I had already forgiven him, but in order to move forward beyond a superficial façade I had to know he acknowledged his past actions, so we could truly move forward. If you can’t admit to something, you haven’t owned it.
In 2015, he finally did just that and since then we have been working on having an actual relationship. It’s nice, far nicer than I ever thought we’d have, but I’m also 32 so it’s like finding a long lost father as an adult. When I write about experiences of my youth, I’m not going to sugarcoat his role in my life, journey or identity. He played a pivotal part, and even though he is not that man anymore, omitting him is lying, and doing the work a disservice. It affects impact. Because someone who is abused, they believe they deserve it. They might have someone telling them as much, just as my father told me. They need to know that people say this and that those people are wrong and dealing with their own struggles that they’re just dumping onto you. I hope it wouldn’t negatively impact our relationship. He’s owned his actions, acknowledges them, so when it’s relevant, I hope he understands if/why he will show up in a piece.
Sometimes I feel like being a writer is constantly having to choose between your work and your relationships, even if it should never be this way.
I don’t believe in ultimatums. I know they exist, but I also think they’re relationship death. My husband understands, and has never tried to censor me. Of course, I also haven’t written anything about him that one could see as terrible. Would that change if I wrote about our lowest points, which would show both of us at our worst? I hope not.
If anyone ever told me that I had to make a choice between them and never writing about X, I would be reasonable. I would look at what they wanted me to stop writing about. If it was something like fashion, sure I’d stop if they mattered to me. But I don’t write about that so more likely, I would tell them I’m sorry they feel that way and that my door is always open should they change their mind. Maybe they’ll cool down eventually. Maybe they’ll never speak to me again. But how healthy or valuable is a relationship with someone who says, “Ignore who you are, and don’t help others, ever, because of my hypersensitivities”? It’s not.
Long ago, I learned not to try to guess how other people will react to anything. Be considerate and thoughtful and well-intentioned. Don’t do anything out of spite or to be antagonistic just to be antagonistic. If you write something while following these rules and someone feels hurt, then they need to come to you. They need to confront you, talk with you, and I do believe in those cases, things will eventually be sorted out, even if it is simply the understanding of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
I know this is something that every writer must face, and there is comfort knowing that in some ways, while in others it doesn’t mean anything. I hate that I feel I have to choose between writing, something that is embedded in my DNA and how I relate to others, the world and find my truth, with certain relationships. And when that becomes something real and “in my face” reconciling the loss of that relationship because ultimatums will never win and if someone truly loved and respected me, they would never try to silence me. Knowing this, doesn’t make the emotional components any easier. It’s like the old phrase, “You can be right or you can be happy.” But that’s not exactly true. I’d never be happy censored, and I’d be happier if people in my life wouldn’t take a piece meant to do good and believe it to be nothing more than a personal attack.
Meanwhile, I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing. I’m going to keep writing the hard stuff, because I feel compelled to do so. Hoping it lights the way for someone else to come out on the other side.
I just have to hope that the people who mean the most to me, will see the good I am doing instead of fixating on what a reader may think of them if they happen to appear in what my writing. Because if the question is whether to write or not, I will always write and never not.