Thanks so much, Pat, for having me on your blog. I’m delighted to be here.
In talking about writing, the question of whether what’s written is “true” seems to come up a lot, and what our responsibility is to those we love. Anne LaMott has written somewhere (in her witty and wonderful writings—if you haven’t read her on writing, you have a big treat ahead!) that people will either think everything you write is about them or never see themselves in what you write, even if it is about them. If it’s fiction, we at least have deniability, but if one is writing poetry (where people seem to assume it’s personal experience, whether or not it actually is) or memoir, then what? The author Mark Doty in his memoir Firebird shares a scene in which his alcoholic mother brandishes a gun at him:
She’s standing at the other end of the hallway, by the doorway to the kitchen, holding the black pistol in both hands, my father’s Luger, holding it the way he taught her to years ago, when we used to shoot at bottles and cans in the desert: well out in front of her, away from her face.
She holds the gun out, and she waits; I stand in the line of fire, and I wait.
If this was my mother, who is still alive, I could not publish this scene. (Just to be clear, my mother has never done anything like this.)
I don’t propose to answer to this question of honesty and responsibility, as I think each writer has to answer it for herself. It depends on our relationships with those we love and what we are writing. It takes incredible courage to be a writer. We are required to dig deep into our emotional selves, and represent those emotions as honestly as we can on the page. Yes, it’s about telling a good story, but story comes from inside character, resides in the agonies that the character feels. The power in Doty’s work above is the waiting they do, staring at each other. We wait with them, our hearts hammering.
Some writers I know have let their loved ones read their work before it is published to give feedback. Others have waited until the people they are writing about are no longer with us. Some avoid creating any character that has any trait of anyone they know. (How do they do that?) Some take their loved ones’ reactions after publication, good or bad. Maybe it depends on how tolerant we are of conflict. Maybe it depends on how clever we are.
In my novel Shadow Notes, the main character, Clara Montague, has an epic fight with her socialite mother and leaves home to travel the world for fifteen years. Her father is dead. These are not my parents, nor is Clara me. Clara has a psychic gift, but I do not (although it would occasionally be useful). There is a best friend, a love interest, a villain. None of them are people I know, although some of the socialites I portray mimic aspects of people I’ve met in wealthy Fairfield County, Connecticut.
But I write from experience, so all the characters contain parts of me or people around me. The conflicts I’ve experienced are fodder for the misunderstandings in the story—but fodder and traits are parts, not wholes. I think writing what we know isn’t literal, although it might be, but instead refers to our experience of, investment in, understanding of the world around us, a voice unique to each writer.
So, here’s my position on it: My story is completely made up. How about you? How much of yours is true? What do you feel your responsibility is to those who might partly or fully appear in your pages? I’d love to hear comments!
Laurel S. Peterson is an English professor at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. Her poetry has been published in many literary journals and she has two poetry chapbooks. Her first mystery, Shadow Notes, has just been released by Barking Rain Press, and she is currently serving as the town of Norwalk, Connecticut’s poet laureate.