It’s easy to tell an embarrassing truth about someone else. Actually, as a writer, I get a perverse pleasure from it. I can tuck the truth into a piece of fiction and no one will ever be the wiser or I can tell it outright in an essay and call it art.
Still, sharing other people’s truths, even if it benefits my creative life, can feel awkward. Unless, of course, the person is dead. After you’re dead, everything you ever did or said is fair game, rich fodder for my creative life. If we’re estranged that can work just as well.
But, we’re not estranged and until then, you’re safe with me, sort of. I can’t say I won’t write about you, but I’ll write so that even your mother wouldn’t recognize you. Fair enough?
Here are my 5 rules for writing about the people I love:
- For every story I write about a person I know, I ask myself- is this my story to tell? Some stories are not mine. I don’t understand them or I don’t have all the facts I need to tell the story true. As a twelve-year old kid, I saw the movie, “The Trial of Billy Jack.” Okay, so I was an impressionable girl, but after I saw that movie, I switched from writing about cute boys and horses to writing long, boring, tragic stories of persecuted and handsome Native American men. Don’t rent the movie. It was awful and don’t read my terrible, terrible stories of persecuted and handsome Native American men.
- I never want to write something that would embarrass or humiliate someone I love. This rule brings to mind Pat Conroy’s book, The Prince of Tides. It’s probably a bad example because if you’ve read Conroy’s book, a semi-autobiographical novel of his abusive father, you know that sometimes you just have to get things off your chest. The book is so darn good. His family disowned him after the novel’s release, but came around eventually. Here he comments in a 1996 story for The Guardian,
Pat Conroy tells the story of when his mother was dying of leukemia. She said, “Son, I find it hard to relax when I’m dying, knowing you’re going to write down every damn word I say.” When he told her that she’d be included in the film version of “Prince of Tides”, she told him to get Meryl Streep to play the part.
3. I write the story true. No one is all villain or all hero. Yesterday, I ripped off the kid at the coffee shop. The coffee cost $2.19. I gave him 3 dollars. He gave me back $1.91. I didn’t tell him. I drove away satisfied that I took money from the donut shop that takes money from me. Serves them right for putting all the good donut shops out of business. Checkmate. Gotcha. Then I thought of how the kid’s cash drawer might not add up at the end of the night and what if this was his last day to get it right? I didn’t turn around and go back, this is a true story, remember? Later that same day, when the grocery clerk asked me if I wanted to round up for the local fire department I said yes! in a really loud voice. No one is all villain.
4. If it’s a story that will define the person for evermore, I don’t write it. There is still something about the published written word that seems like hard fact. It is very difficult to live down a defining moment even if the story appeared in a seedy tabloid. The story can dog the person forever. I think of Axl Rose, the front man of Guns N’ Roses. I mean how many times has he been reported dead only to resurface, go on tour, and record a new album? I feel like if he actually dies, no one will believe it.
5. Rules are made to be broken. Or at least, bent a little. Be careful. Be oh so careful what you share with me. I didn’t ask to be born this way.