“After everything that I’ve put you through, you can write whatever you want about me,” said the real person who may or may not be represented by a character in my most recent novel, Hard Cider. Sounds like permission, right? Not so fast. This is a young person, with a future including children and complicated relationships in which my story could pose problems. People who know my family and read Hard Cider have a hard time making eye contact when they first see me after reading the book. The good news is that I’ve apparently made this story very believable. The bad news is that friends and family members think they recognize my family and me in its pages, even in entirely made-up characters and events. I write fiction, which means I get to make up characters and make up the plots and conflicts I put them through. Yet once again, I have written a book that cleaves to themes and story lines close to my heart and my own life — encore careers, self-determination for a woman of a certain age, infertility, and how we form and preserve families. I have faced the questions that regularly confront memoirists, who write about family. Why are you writing this story? Whose story is it? What do you leave in, and what do you leave out? I offer these considerations to frame writing decisions that both memoirists and fiction writers must make.
Consideration #1- Know Why You Are Writing Your Story
In my first novel, Even in Darkness, I wrote a legacy story about a beloved aunt and her life through two world wars and the Holocaust in Germany. It was her story, crafted through interviews, letters, and visits. Fiction, yes, but based on a known life story. My goals were clear— write a tribute to a strong complex woman who must cope with the unthinkable and somehow make meaning for the remainder of her life. I guess I wasn’t done with that concept — that a strong multidimensional woman must overcome the unexpected with dignity and self-determination, so Abbie Rose, in Hard Cider, must reinvent not only her work as a cider maker, but her very sense of what constitutes her family. My goal was to again to feature resilience, strength of character and life affirmation in the face of deep challenge. In neither case did I wish to dishonor a person who was represented in one of my characters. But people will see what they want to see in your work, regardless of your reality or any “subjective reality” if there is such a thing. As Lionel Shriver has said, “All the disguise I threw in may have protected me in professional and legal terms, but it didn’t protect my family’s feelings.” Retribution and unloading pain onto another may be restorative to the writer, but may not be the best reasons to publish.
Consideration #2. Memoir or Novel?
The “new” genre of autofiction reflects the somewhat blurry line between memoir and fiction when it comes to the telling of stories based in real life.
Novels may be easier to write emotionally— putting some distance from one’s own story. The writer doesn’t have to remember everything that really happened, with an option to rewrite history, include events not witnessed directly, and create characters and plot points, to better complete a story arc or theme.
Memoir allows the author to explore the real truth behind what happened. It may be easier to tell a real story than to make one up. The story can be shaped, expanded or compressed to meet the literary needs of the work, and to explore how meaning has come to the writer over time. The author’s own voice has supremacy in memoir.
Consideration #3- How to protect yourself and others
If writing fiction, make up plot elements, major and minor characters, events, and subplots that are entirely fictional to carry out the themes central to the book and help disguise characters and situations based on real people. With memoir, make sure the basic facts are true… this is the contract you have with your reader.
- Touch base with family members both to gather research, and to garner support for the project. This isn’t always possible, but can be very helpful in staving off hurt feelings later.
- If writing fiction, disguise identities of living people who are characters in the book.
- Send sample chapters or excerpts to gauge the response of people with a stake in the book’s public scrutiny.
- The whole truth is not necessarily what a family member wishes to see in print.
- Rather, the parts of a family story that sustain a “stakeholder’s” desired view of the person or situation in question may powerfully influence that member’s sense of the “real” story.
Disguising identities, changing or omitting particularly painful truths for the sake of remaining family members, but most importantly, communicating about the work to be published to those who will be affected by the work becoming public are important ways to avoid conflict around a work based on a real family. So…
- write the story the way you need to first. Get everything out there.
- Don’t show it to family members yet.
- Look at it critically and get advice from critique partners and editors. How does it really read? Then dig deep within yourself to understand what your overarching goal is in telling this story… Again, if it comes off as retribution, or only a resolution of your own issues, is that what your goal was? As important as it was for you to write, does it require publication? Those are often very different questions.