Writers worry a lot.
Worry is what feeds our procrastination; why we’d rather clean that disgusting barbecue grill than sit in front of our nice, clean computers. We worry that we’re hacks; that we have nothing new to say on a subject, that we’re frittering away our time on yet another project that we’re never going to see to completion.
However, there’s one fear that looms above them all, the granddaddy of the pack: the fear of writing about other people and the trouble that may cause.
Here’s the scoop: As writers, we want to stick to the truth as closely as possible, unless of course, we’re writing fiction, but we can slap a mustache or a wig on an individual and still remain true to the storyline. Disguising the identity of those we write about, particularly if we’re obligated to guard their privacy, is often as easy as changing the name or gender, and switching up a few telling details. Don’t think that in order to get to the heart of the story you have to out others.
Here’s where things can get tricky. If you’re writing a memoir, it’s pretty hard to camouflage the identities of key players in your life. You can change his name to “Bob” and throw a cowboy outfit on him, but we all know you’re describing your alcoholic father or that brother who ended up in prison. You can’t fool us, or them. And rare is the family member who’ll take kindly to your version of the truth, or to having their secrets revealed.
It would be great if you could leave these “sensitive” people off the page, but they’re likely a major driving force in your story. Come to think of it, you probably wouldn’t be telling this story if it weren’t for them. Hey, as the author, Anne Lamott once joked, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.”
I once had a lovely, wise professor who spent some time addressing this matter. “If you write about a person,” he said, “tell the truth, and do it with love and compassion.” To show what he meant, he read a scene from one of his books in which he described, in gorgeous language, the boy he once was, his drunken father, and the abyss between them. After he was done, I cried because I recognized myself. I understood each of the characters, what they wanted yet couldn’t have. I felt their pain and love.
This is a good time to mention that great writing is about telling the truth. To have a shot at producing something good, you’ve got to write down the stuff you swore you’d never tell another living soul. You’ve got to get it all down, no matter how whiney you sound, or bitter. I promise you, during the process, the story will soften on the page. You’ve got to tell the truth as you see and understand it. If you don’t tell the truth, your story will be dead in the water. You’ll have to take your manuscript into the backyard and bury it because political correctness only serves to keep your reader at arm’s length. They won’t be sure what to think or feel, which will only make them bail.
You’ve got to write as if no one will ever read your words. You’ve got to trust that you’re safe. It’s not like your words are going to be published tomorrow, anyway.
A word of warning: While you write, when you’re most vulnerable to criticism, protect yourself by keeping your manuscript to yourself. Don’t foist it onto friends and family members. Do NOT ask for their opinion. This is the single most effective way to shut yourself down. First of all, some ideas shouldn’t be shared until you’ve had the time to reconsider them, to develop them, to allow them to soften so they don’t read like psycho-therapy rantings. Secondly, you may get your nose out of joint by their lack of enthusiasm. If you’re lucky.
Which leads me to this point: Not everybody is your audience. Your kids, your parents, your second cousin twice removed, some of your friends, may not like what you have to say. They may criticize you, and that’s OK. It’s normal to feel defensive. It takes guts to face that. But after you’ve thought about a chapter in your life, examined it from several different angles, reconsidered certain events a thousand times, the need to justify your position will begin to dissipate. Especially when you recognize that your real audience is desperately waiting for you to put into words what they’re feeling, what they’re yearning to hear. That what they need most of all is your truth.
As the author Richard Bausch once said, “There are people out there suffering the wounds and sorrows and terrors of existence who do not have the words to weather it, and it is the writer’s place to give expression to that part of the experience—to provide a sense of what Joseph Conrad called the ‘solidarity of the human family,’ and to give forth nothing less than the knowledge that no one, in the world of stories and of art, is ever totally alone.”