The Difficulty of Writing What You Know

As I combed through a file full of word documents, the other day, I stumbled upon an article I’d written titled A Decade of Faking It, the subject, of which, is self-explanatory. This piece that I’d forgotten about was both entertaining and nearly finished, making it a perfect candidate for publishing. Yet, it’d somehow been cast aside for over a year.

After considering it further, however, I remembered why I’d originally opted against making it public. A Decade of Faking It, like many things I’ve written, contained a lot of personal information that people, some still in my life and some not, would likely object to being made public. So, it was fated to sit on my desktop before eventually being relegated to my “Incomplete” folder — where most of my good stories go to die.

Writing instructors, for as long as I can remember, have encouraged me to speak my truth. “Write what you know,” they’ve always told me. But I’ve never been given writing advice about how to handle the consequences that arise from painting real people in an unflattering light, which often means painting them too accurately.

“It’s much easier to write about real people when you only have flattering things to say, when you’re writing for revenge, or when the people you’re writing about are dead.”

It’s a natural urge, particularly for people who find themselves especially intriguing, to want to tell their stories. And the majority of us haven’t led blemish free lives filled with only flawless people and, if we had, I doubt those would make interesting narratives. So, how do you give an honest recounting of the difficult situations you’ve been in, and the imperfect people who were involved in them, without ruffling feathers, ruining relationships, and attracting defamation suits?

For the sake of plot and concision, you have to make difficult decisions about what to include and what to omit, which inevitably means telling a, not necessarily skewed, but selective version of the truth. As the writer, your version of the truth is written has to be left to your discretion. You couldn’t, realistically, go to every person who you planned to write about and get their input on every mention of them.

You could, instead, write something loosely based on your life, with fabricated characters and scenarios. But turning to fiction to tell a true story, at times, feels like a cop out.

Last year, I took a memoir writing course, in New York, where I was tasked with writing honestly about my life and I chose to begin with the most sensitive subjects I could think of — my parents. It was the first time, ever, that I’d written about them, for eyes other my own. The anxiety that accompanied sifting through my childhood memories and tailoring them into 15 pages was crushing.

My mother’s multiple personalities were relatively easy, amusing even, to unfold. My father’s volatile temper was a more difficult issue. I tried and failed to wholeheartedly voice my feelings on the subject, unable to disencumber myself from nagging concerns about how he would react to it.

As they workshopped my first chapter, that concern became evident to my classmates. “It feels like you’re hesitant to give details about your father,” they all agreed.

“If privacy is a priority for you, I’d sincerely advise against dating writers of any sort.”

Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, said that writers own everything that’s happened to us. “Tell your stories,” Lamott urges. “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

As reasonable as I feel that advice is, it does nothing, in reality, to quell my worries about what the people who I’ve written about will think, or what the people in their lives will think. It will never be easy to hurt people’s feelings or be the reason that they feel betrayed or embarrassed. Even if you’re not writing hit pieces on your subjects, and you’re being truthful, you’re still giving strangers an intimate, unauthorized, peak into their lives.

Is it enough to simply be fair and honest, when writing about other people? Do we not have some responsibility to respect the privacy and protect the image of people who existed around us, never thinking that their words and actions were being dedicated to our memories to be publicized later?

I try to consider how I would feel if someone close were to write about me.

I’m currently seeing someone who regularly writes about the people in his life. At the moment, we have a loose understanding that we both won’t write in depth about one another other, for public consumption, but there’s no way to know for certain when that deal will expire. And, really, if privacy is a priority for you, I’d sincerely advise against dating writers of any sort.

But I digress.

I concluded, as I listened to my classmates’ chapters throughout the 11 weeks of that memoir class, that it’s much easier to write about real people when you only have flattering things to say, when you’re writing for revenge, or when the people you’re writing about are dead. Or if you’re a sociopath.

None of this, however, is to say that we should shy away from writing about our lives and the people in them, rather that it’s normal to be tortured determining how much truth to tell. And whether or not it’s worth it? Ultimately, I hope to overcome every reservation that I have about putting forth whole and factual depictions of people. So many of the works that I’ve enjoyed, ones that inspired my love of writing, were birthed by authors who were brave enough to be honest.

Like what you read? Give Gennette Cordova a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.