Friday, April 3, 2009

The People in Your Neighborhood: Should You Write About Them?

Sorry I haven't posted much the past couple of days. I have a parent in the hospital, which always makes life kind of crazy, especially when the other parent is alone in the apartment. I'm having to answer the phone every time it rings (I usually let the machine pick up), and that, of course, leads to conversations I'd usually let ride until my writing day was over.

Anyway, speaking of writing days, a blogger I hadn't "met" before commented on my newspaper post the other day so I checked out his blog, Open the Vein––that's a literary reference BTW. He just won first place in the Utah State U writing competition only he has a problem. The winning sub is "a fictional piece about the conflict between a young man and his new father in law. It's so closely based on actual scenes from my experience that I am unfortunately unable to share my excitement in winning with my in-laws."

Has that happened to you? It has to me. In fact, I don't let anyone in my family read my writing for fear they will find themselves, either real or imagined, in my work. About the only one I haven't written about is my daughter, because her character is a tough one to pin down, and she doesn't read my stories out of total disinterest.

Funny thing is, when I first started submitting seriously, I had about three stories I sent in over and over. One of them was a "literary-light" piece, "Dora's Memoir", based on family lore from my mother's side. I think there was more to it than coincidence when it turned out to be my first published piece, because it was an easy way to introduce my family to my writing with characters based on them but in the same light they preferred to see themselves.

The main character in my second published story, "The Box of Cereal," is blatently based on my husband, though––thank God––not on a true incident. Despite how it first appears, it was written in love, a way of saying, I know who you are underneath. Yet, when it came out we played this little game. I gave it to him and he eventually lost it in his own personal slush pile of reading material where all my suggested reading usually ends up. Of course, I knew that would happen and that it would allow me, with great anger and annoyance, to snatch it back lest I lose my only contributor's copy (this was the first pub in print before it was repubbed in R&T). I then dropped it in the back of my closet with great relief that neither of us had to endure the discomfort of him reading it.

Since then my husband has made it clear he feels uncomfortable reading my fiction, and I feel the same––though I still act hurt instead of telling him––it's a woman thing. When my biological family ask how my writing is going I show them my articles and interviews––innocuous things––because even the fiction that isn't based on their characters would be wondered at by them. A woman having an affair––could that be who I am or who I want to be? The man considering suicide––is that my alter ego?

The strange result is that my parents have no idea of my successes. My sister, who publishes for academic reasons, is bragged about to friends and family while my work goes unnoticed. That really doesn't bother me, though. I live in a separate world where friends who understand and appreciate the sweat that goes into it share my successes and failures as I do theirs. I'd rather that than have my work raked over by people who just wouldn't understand.


Amy Sue Nathan said...

I compare my WIP to making a dress (not that I sew). If you have the same pattern but make two dresses, one out of cotton calico and one out of raw silk, you have two completely different dresses. That's how I feel about my fiction. I take a real event and I flip it upside down, shake it out, change it and make it out of all different materials than real life. But when something originates in truth, people have a hard time understand that you "made it up." I'm not sure how you explain that to "regular" people. LOL.

Nannette Croce said...

A few years ago I was listening to an interview with a female writer––can't remember who it was––and she mentioned how awkward it can be for acquaintances to read your work. The example she used was writing about a woman who kills her children and how that might get her neighbors thinking.

Haikuyou said...

My biological family can read my stuff, for now. It helps that I grew up in a pretty conservative religious family and as a pretty conservative religious kid myself, then became an atheist. My family has survived my being very honest about all of that, and I don't think it was easy. Bottom line though, is that they are genuine people who lack that usual fear of looking bad to other people. And it helps that there is very little negative to speak of in my childhood.

But I know at some point in the future I'm going to have to send a false story to my in laws - when they ask why I haven't published anything. Something written first person by an evolutionary biologist, where his thoughts reveal that he doesn't actually believe in that "theory" and he's just trying to avoid God's conviction. They'd like that.

Nannette Croce said...

At the risk of dating myself this reminds me of an episode of The Waltons. Word gets around Walton's Mountain that John Boy wrote a story about the Baldwin sisters. It's an unflattering story about the oft-told tale of one of the sister's mythological suitor. As it turns out, against all odds, the sisters have been long time subscribers to the elite journal in which it was supposed to be published. JB ends up withdrawing the story and making up a whole new one for the sisters to read.

Of course, Hamner lived to tell the tale and make some money off it.

CashewElliott said...

I used to be called John Boy Walton by a neighbor. It doesn't date you, because I don't know when it went off the air. I'm 23, so you must be at least 24.

CashewElliott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
CashewElliott said...

I changed my name from Haikuyou to Cashew Elliott. Maybe someday when I'm not concerned about my aunt in law Googling my name I can go by my real name.


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