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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Critical Thinking: Change the Names...

Kersley Fitzgerald

So, I got my very first proof the other day. It’s a short story an emag bought a few months ago. You haven’t seen it, yet. Only my writers’ group has. I’m pretty excited for you guys to read it and tear it apart. I’ll send out links to my ma and my sister and brother, and post about it on my pseudonym’s Facebook.

The problem is, I can’t post it to my personal Facebook account.

For his book Sh*t My Dad Says, Justin Halpern had his father read every word of his book before he sent it in. His father obliged, making honest (and colorful) comments, but supporting his son. Anne LaMott asks her son, Sam, before sending out anything she’s written about him. Anne’s also the author who says if you want to use something in your life that’s too sensitive, change the names and call it fiction.

The story that’s coming out took two months to think about and a couple of hours to write. I pulled from several different things that were going on around me. One of these was a reunion of sorts of grade school friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen since shortly after college, others since I was thirteen.

Some of the experiences there fit the story—made the story more circular, more relatable. What I should have done was take the emotion out of that experience and shift the setting beyond recognition. I could have created an entirely different situation and characters. Done that writer thing and create.

Instead, I changed the names and called it fiction. If anyone who was there read the story (and knew I was the author), I’m pretty sure they’d recognize themselves and the others.

Which might have been all right if I hadn’t also included the emotion behind the situation. But I did. I took those people, slightly altered, and that situation, barely altered, and included my judgments and emotional reactions. (The interpretation of their motivation given in the story is, of course, fiction.) And I told them neither about the story nor how I felt about seeing them again.

I don’t think it’s wrong to use personal experiences in your fictional writing. I think it makes it richer and more authentic. But, maybe I need to come up with some ground rules for myself.

  • It’s okay to base characters on real life people if you check with them before putting it out there and take their comments into consideration. Like the authors above.
  • It’s okay to base characters on real life people if the inspiration is superficial enough that no insult can be taken. In my first completed book, nearly all the main characters were based, to varying degrees, on friends. I gave the manuscript to the mom of the character I was most worried about it. She laughed through the whole thing, seeing her daughter’s personality shining through.
  • It’s okay to base characters on real life people if you alter them so much they wouldn’t even recognize themselves. Anne LaMott says this is easier to do if they’re self-absorbed and think they do no wrong.
  • I think it’s even okay to base unflattering characters on real life people if no one else can recognize them. The deal is, you have to be willing to step up if your inspiration finds you out.

Venue must be taken into consideration. Ironically, I get a lot more detailed in a blog, “friended” by several people I’ve never met or met only once, than I do in my personal Facebook account, which I limit to only people I know (or are married to Tom’s cousins, strangely enough). In a blog, read mostly by people who never meet the people I talk about, it becomes more about me and my experience and less about gossip or dragging people down. “E-quaintances” give and take advice and support without being distracted by the politics that invade any group dynamic. It’s like your mom telling you you’re the prettiest girl in school. Number one, she’s biased. Number two, she’s never actually seen Becky McCanna.

All that to say, I think it would have been all right to dissect my reaction to the reunion in a more limited setting. I certainly got personal in one of the stories I wrote for the Friday Challenge. So personal that you’ll never see it published. Ever. ‘Cus if my ma read it…let’s just say she’s never had to use my middle name because she can stuff all the venom in the world into just my first name.

But you're not likely to ever meet my mom.

One of the issues any writer needs to decide is how much do their stories belong to them? David Sedaris goes all out. I don’t think there’s a single dirty sock he’s afraid to air. And this issue isn’t restricted to writers, by any means. One might say that my third cousin, aged 72, died of natural causes. And yet, part of my story is to confess that he had a heart attack in a gay bath house in downtown Portland.

A DJ I listen to gave out a challenge on Monday. Don’t put people down behind their backs. If you have a problem and you want an honest opinion as to whether your point of view is whacked, go to someone you trust to be discreet and be vague. But, no matter how much someone hurt you, don’t talk bash your attacker—especially to another friend who knows them.

As someone who suppresses more than she expresses, I think this advice is good, but incomplete. I think you do need to work through things—I find it very difficult to heal from things in my past that have caused unwanted personality quirks without working through what happened. If I can get an accurate perspective on things, I’m more likely to be gracious instead of being a snot about it.

By using the experience so literally, I was bashing them to some extent. The feelings were too raw at the time I wrote it. And, not having seen them for so long, I certainly didn’t know enough to be able to interpret their actions with any kind of accuracy. I learned later that one of my old friends is bi-polar.

As she-who-is-non-confrontational, I don’t think I’ll do this again. Personal experiences can lead to passion and truth in writing but I’m supposed to be a creative writer. I should have been creative.

Kersley Fitzgerald sometimes laments that this is true, as her family provides a rich, storied source of dysfunction that just pleads to be converted into fiction.
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