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! :)

Howl

by Elison Alcovendaz
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Barkley ran around the backyard, pooping in the corner, pissing in the other, and I followed him around, a taut hand on the leash, trying to lead and not to be led, when he finally began to doze off on a pile of leaves I had neglected to rake the last two weeks, and since it was only 10am on a Monday, and the suburbs were quiet, I went back inside and grabbed my guitar, moved a picnic chair to the middle of the backyard patio, and began to run my fingers across the fretboard, but something wasn’t right and at first I didn’t know what it was, but then I realized it was off tune, and since I’m tone deaf I couldn’t tune it by ear, I decided not to play, but then Barkley woke up and began to howl, and soon all the dogs in the neighborhood were howling, and I began to howl too, but inside, and by the pitch of the collective howls I tuned the guitar, and started to pluck the strings, and sing a song about being free, and by the time I was done all the dogs were silent and Barkley was sleeping again. 

 

An Untitled Writer

by Elison Alcovendaz

In my first creative writing class, back in the summer of 2008, Professor Stanley began the class with BHAGs - "Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals."  We went around the classroom - very amateur writers, all of us - and talked about the stories we wanted published, the writing careers we wanted to establish, the books we wanted to see on the shelves of Barnes and Noble. Not one of us had researched the odds of any of these things happening, not one of us had any idea what trying to make it as a writer in America actually meant. We wanted to write our fantasy and sci-fi novels and get published and make money and never have to work a "real" job ever again. 

A few months before, in the middle of a home poker game, my aunt arrived with a gift for my cousin - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows . I hadn't read any of the previous books - in fact, I hadn't read much of anything - but I fell in love right away and decided, right then, that writing was something I wanted to do. Deep inside, I felt it was something I actually needed to do, a warm, growing sensation that maybe, in those pages, I had discovered   who I was supposed to be.

It's a strange thing to say, even now, but true nonetheless. While sitting at the poker table, I read three chapters; later that night, I stayed up with my light on, eyes fighting this new activity, reading until I fell asleep. That was a Sunday. On Monday, I faced my life until that point - a corporate sales management job, working 60 hours a week in my off-colored white shirt, discount bin ties, dealing with the public, floundering purposelessly in a sea of profit margins, ringing phones, and customer service scores. Yup, super exciting. I'd been there for five years, knowing I was on my way - to what? I couldn't tell you. A house, a wife, some kids, a dog - the American Dream, I guess? 

We are indoctrinated to this once we are born. Our TV shows glorify those in big houses and nice suits, our schools measure success by test scores instead of curiosity, college degrees are for "jobs" and not for "knowledge". Even more so for a first generation American whose family moved here specifically for this reason - success, yes, but success measured by financial viability.

Until that summer, for the first 28 years of my life, I had been surrounded by business people. My parents and each one of my aunts and uncles had earned accounting degrees in the Philippines and moved here shortly thereafter. In my family, all 80 of us who lived within three miles of each other, there hadn't been one person who had become, or even dreamed of becoming, a musician, a painter, an actor, a writer. I'm sure this is the similar situation for a lot of people. It's just America. It's just what we're supposed to do - participate in industries that American capitalism has defined as worthy; there's a reason a lawyer makes 2 to 3 times that of a teacher, a reason why real estate is a more financially viable profession than, say, the musician playing gigs in local, sweaty bars for 50 years. You get a job that America says is worthy enough so you can buy a house, have kids, maybe send them to college, raise them so they can find a job that provides enough stability so they can buy a house, have kids, maybe send them to college, raise them so they can find a job that provides enough stability so they can buy a house, have kids, send them to college... 

Overwhelming desperation filled me. I couldn't name it. I didn't understand it. I just kept thinking, There has to be something more than this. If this was all there was, getting the paycheck, putting money into retirement, doing this for half of your awake adult life, just so your kids could live the same systemic existence... I just needed there to be something more. I'd heard too many stories of elderly people who had this epiphany too late, of those who had found God in their later years because they wanted their life to be part of something greater. So I did something which, at the time, seemed extremely courageous. A knockout punch to The Man. One month after reading that Harry Potter book, I walked into my Area Manager's office and handed him my resignation letter.

No one understood. Not the Vice President who came a day later to show me how much money I would be making in the next two years, not the friends who had been there for the parties in Vegas, not the family. How could they? I didn't even understand myself. It turned out not to be courageous, but stupid. Idiotic. Probably insane. I had bills to pay. Rent. Instead, I moved back in with my parents, sat at their kitchen table, and for the next six months wrote nearly 200,000 words of the terrible, terrible, terrible first draft of The Jack of Heartland , the novel that now, after eight more drafts and four years, I'm finally trying to get published.

I eventually found myself in the graduate creative writing program at Sacramento State. Very different, to say the least, from the BS in business I had already earned. No one wore ties or dress shoes, no one talked about balance sheets; in fact, the only time the writing students and faculty talked about money was when they complained about how little of it they had. Faculty had no problem talking about the miniscule amount of money they made; classmates embodied the "writer's" stereotype  - glorifying the miserly life, getting in touch with nature, railing against capitalism at all costs (even as we hoarded books and commodified them neatly into our shelves), as we sat in desks built for middle schoolers and discussed words and theories made up by people like ourselves, not realizing that specialized language is often a marker of capitalism and industry. I didn't fit in. Not with my new Calvin Klein shirts and DKNY peacoats. For the most part, I hid my past - I felt like a leftover piece of the "system" that we were so intent on "deconstructing."

It's funny how a new scene can change you. I became a little Marxist. I eschewed my Kenneth Coles for Vans and flip flops. I stopped using gel in my hair. I scoured thrift shops for cheap books. I judged my friends and family with their poster middle-class lives, with their mortgages and trimmed lawns and cute babies in their Polo Shirts and Air Jordan shoes. I wondered how anyone could succumb to the game like that, scraping by just so they could stay in the comfy confines of the ethereal prison of the American Dream.

Man, I judged. I analyzed. I criticized. We did it all day in class and it spilled out into my daily life. I couldn't watch a movie for fun anymore. People who thought Twilight was the best thing they'd ever read became idiots in my mind. My old friends who were still going to clubs instead of dive bars, other friends who were still working 50-60 hours a week instead of reading, my family who listened to the local pop stations instead of NPR - I felt bad for them; how could they not see? In the classroom, I learned the lingo - throw in "ideology" here, a little "social construction" over there, maybe call that thing "homosocial," and just for good measure, toss in some "hybridity." I threw in Foucault and Said into conversations outside of the classroom, and when people looked at me like I'd lost my damn mind I just laughed in my head and knew they would just never get it. 

In the midst of all that, I did learn something, a small thing that I now realize changed my life. It's the Golden Rule about the craft of writing - everything is a choice; every word, every sentence, every image, and every punctuation mark will dictate whether or not the larger work (the book, story, poem, etc.) is successful. And not success in terms of book sales, not whether your reader "gets" it, not whether your workshop says it's the greatest thing they've ever read, not whether or not it's published, but whether or not the story is actually "whole."

It's an easy analogy to make. Story. Life. Much like the choices we make in a story, the choices we make in life dictate whether or not we can be "whole." America doesn't make it easy. I started my life wanting to be in bed with the system, with business and money, only to find myself among a group of people who wanted to throw that bed out the window with the people still on it. By the end of the program, I felt more lost than I had before. I had found writing, I had found my passion, yes, but I didn't believe the people who said that should be enough. Much like I didn't believe that those who said raising your kids the right way and being financially stable and getting married was enough. As if either of those was all there was to life. All I knew was I wanted to write, I was tired of living in an apartment, I wanted to write, I was tired of living paycheck to paycheck, I wanted to write, I was tired of praying my car wouldn't break down.

It's a choice many artists in America have to make. Be the "commercial sell out" or be "true to the craft." We see it all the time. The "indie" band makes it big and all of a sudden they are sell outs. Conversely, the writer of genre fiction cannot be taken seriously when they write literary fiction. It's always one or the other. America says you cannot be both. You cannot work 40 hours a week, dealing with mundane business crap, and go home and be creative enough to write. You cannot, okay? You cannot.

Ah, but choice. Since graduating, I have reconnected with my old friends, rekindled relationships with family. I found a 40-hour a week job that pays decently enough to buy a house. I'm getting married to a woman who is too good and too beautiful for me. We plan on having nice furniture someday. We plan on buying new cars. We plan on having kids. We plan on sending them to college. We plan on having grandkids. But we are also committed to my writing, on not making excuses on why there's no time, on not falling into the mutually exclusive buckets America says we must fall in. All choices we have made. But will it work? Living here, in the middle? Who knows? But we are choosing to try, and it is in the choosing that makes us whole.