Writing About People You Know

by Elison Alcovendaz

Disclaimer: In the following blog, any similarity or reference to real people in the real world is PURELY coincidental and is not intended to be disparaging, slanderous, defamatory, or any other adjective for “an adjective you could use to sue me.”

A famous writer (whose name eludes me) once said that a writer is able to walk past an open door and intuit all there is to know about the people in that room and their situation. Okay, maybe the quote isn’t verbatim, but the idea is clear: writers need to have a keener, deeper sensitivity to the world than others, and not the type of senstivity that makes people say “Sticks and stones may break my bones,” but sensitivity in the actual root of the word: “sense.” Good writers (like all artists) can “sense” things that other people struggle with; they see personalities, relationships, and emotions in words, objects, and hand gestures; they make previously invisible connections visible; they discover secrets about the human condition; they, to put it simply, “see.” And not only can writers “see,” but they can put what they see into words.

I am probably million written words away from being a decent writer, much less a good one, and I have no crazy ideas about being an “artist” (so let's get that straight) but one of the nicer things someone ever said about me was that I was able to understand them more deeply, more quickly, than other people (although this is not necessarily a good thing; I’ve had more creepy-ass people tell me their life stories than I care to remember). I don't know how true that compliment was, but I have seen this trait with my writer friends - yes, even those stereotypically depressed, rage-against-the-man, indie rocker/hipster lookalike, skinny as hell writers. Even if they don’t apply their insight in beneficial ways (even to themselves), and even if they would rather twitch and run off to get a tattoo of a vampirous unicorn on their eyelid for some kind of symbolic expression of innocence, death, and immortality rather than sit down and have a conversation, they still “see” humanity clearly. They can cut through the artifice, cut through language, cut through politics and ideologies and your own hardened heart and see the something in you that you’ve worked years and years to hide. Good writers have to. You can’t tell a good story if you don’t understand your characters.

This presents a dilemma, though. “Write about what you know.” You’ve heard that, I assume. Other than yourself, what you know most about are the people around you: parents, siblings, friends. These are people you care about, maybe that you see everyday. Not only have they probably entrusted you with stories, you’ve used that writerly mind of yours to “see” between the lines. How can you write about these people? How can you not? What’s the rule about writing about people you know? I Googled it and here are some of the responses:

1)   “There are stories I cannot tell until my parents die.”

2)   “Write about people you hate. That’s always more fun, anyway.”

3)   “If you write people you know into monsters – even if they are monsters – be prepared to do some explaining.”

4)   “Change the timeline, change the name, change the situation!”

5)   “Don’t be friends with writers! They can kill you in a story!”

Well, that wasn’t helpful.

The first time I published a story about my family, I had dinner with my mom (not my real mom, the one in this blog!) to tell her about it. I’ll spare you the details, but it didn’t put my family in the best light. She’s the greatest mother on earth, but, like the rest of us, we aren’t always at our best and the story portrayed her in her human, imperfect self. The story wasn’t about her, of course; the story was about me and how certain situations affected me, but she was a main character. Anyway, I waited until dessert to bring up the story. I told her about my reservations and I apologized deeply if I’d hurt her, but it was a story that I had to write. She listened and she eventually said that if I ever had that same feeling, to come ask her. No harm in asking.

That seemed sensible enough, but now that I’ve started another story about my family, I feel torn. And it’s not just this most recent story either; I have million stories to tell that involve my parents, cousins, Patty, siblings, acquaintances, in-laws, neighbors. Patty says that if I am truly understanding of other people, I will also understand how they would feel about writing stories that include them. But if writers create stories while being worried about what others think, the stories will never be real enough to connect. What responsbility do writers have here? Are we free to write about anything? Are we free to write about anything as long as we call it “fiction?” If we add a disclaimer? Or do we have to get approval?

We discussed this in a Creative Non-Fiction class and the consensus was (or at least what I took from it), is that a writer’s job is to write stories that approach and seek truth (only approach and seek; anyone who tells you that you can “capture” truth is a liar or an idiot). I think this is accurate. Writers seek to help themselves and people understand. That's all. If you do it in an honest way and come from an honest place, you're probably okay. We all know we aren’t perfect. The imperfections are what drive great characters and stories; the imperfections allow us to connect. Besides, aren't the best stories the ones we connect with on some kind of unspeakable, yet understood, human level?

I hope you're all cool with that! :)