PSA to anyone who accidentally ends up in my writing or anybody’s writing…
Never before had I thought about the potential impact that writing about my life would have on the people who are in my life. That was until one of my old friends questioned me on something I had written.
It’s so easy when writing to become consumed by the need to just get words on the page that we can forget those we are closest with can be the ones worst affected by the ‘truth’ we believe.
It’s true in all forms of writing not just nonfiction. Many fictional characters can have loose resemblances to our family, friends and acquaintances.
Those who know us seem to wield a god-like power over the morality of our work.
In terms of nonfiction, we can pretend that the thought of one relative turning their nose up at our interpretation of a memory wouldn’t bother us but it does.
There is a nasty little goblin at the back of my head when I write that used to say my dad would hate what I’m writing. I’ve learned over time that if I’m writing for someone else it defeats the purpose of it.
A piece of advice from Anne Lamott often circulates in conversations like these.
Her advice quite rightly gives a lot of nonfiction writers confidence. When you have been through trauma, or unfortunate situations, it can be difficult to find yourself in those memories and stick up for past-you. Shame can cloud our better judgment and twist memories into sickly skeletons rather than fleshed out beasts.
Lamott’s advice helps those of us who have been subject to unfair treatment, or worse abuse, to take ownership of something that feels controlled by our abusers. Our own memories can become battlefields. On one side we have the purity of truth that tries to instil rage and passion to believe in ourselves. On the other side, we have shame and confusion. ‘Maybe I was wrong’.
To play devil’s advocate, this advice can also encourage those who always believe they are the victim of poor behaviour (but aren’t really) to feel justified in their manipulations of the truth.
Jane Friedman points out that this advice isn’t always helpful. You can remember something wrongly or drastically different from what actually occurred. She also points out that it is unwise to write “without any regard to others in your life”. This is true.
How do you police something that is just a matter of perspectives and context?
I wouldn’t like to think that my writing comes across as unjust or unthoughtful. I try to consider what the other person is like and whether my emotions are clouding my judgment. I usually blame myself for poor interactions with people but where’s the line? How can you justify writing coldly about someone when it’s just opinion and taken from context of your life?
If I write about you…
To move past the “should-shouldn’t” debate, I think it’s important to talk about what you should do if someone writes about you.
Some of my past medium stories have created unusual conversations in my private life. I have written poorly about people — yes. I have also written about vague examples of behaviour and had people I know interrogate me on it because of one thing I may have said whilst intoxicated on a night-out that has similarities to the example I used.
This is not to say that if I write about you, you’re entitled to argue with me on the street about what I’ve said. Please don’t do that.
I would just ask you question me politely and just remember that if I’ve written about a situation that sounds somewhat like our friendship then it is not out of spite. I am not writing these words to hurt you, or even passive aggressively try to tell you that I am not happy with our friendship.
I think there is a balance between my perception of truth and perspective.
I am fully aware that my opinion is not fact and not all of my memories are solid.
I am also aware that I have been made to question my own ability many times by people in positions of authority, friendships, and even romantic relationships. I have been gaslit in the past and I am no longer okay with being made to feel that I need to question every conclusion I’ve had to ensure that it is accurate.
If I, or even another writer, creates a character that is loosely modelled on you then I would recommend letting it go.
Just take a breath. Assess whether you should say something. If you’re full of rage, let it go.
It shouldn’t matter what I think
As a person who exists in this world, I understand that people may (or may not) talk about me in an unfavourable way. I understand that gossip exists and that people may not believe a word that comes out of my mouth. I have realised however that this is something I cannot change no matter what I write, or say, or do.
I can’t climb into someone else’s mind and rearrange their thoughts so they think well of me.
Some people will always talk bad about you. This is not really a problem but some how when someone has written down what they think of you for everyone to see, it suddenly makes a difference.
Maybe I’m just a sucker for pain but I would rather read someone’s negative opinion of me than live in uncertainty.
Whether we like it or not, this world is full of allegiances and I would like to know who my allies are up front instead of trying to deduce from clues whether they are on my side.
At the end of the day, I guess I have bias because I am a writer and I understand why someone would write about me. I’d like to think that if I wasn’t a writer that I would just let it go.
I’d take a breath, go get a coffee and read a book then get over it.