If you will indulge me for just a minute, I am going to briefly mention something about the television show Gossip Girl, but you should be used to that from me by now.
I rather unabashedly enjoyed Gossip Girl. It had two things going for it from the start: it was produced by OC/Chuck creator Josh Schwartz, and the voice over (from the titular character) was done by Kristen “Veronica Mars” Bell. So I was on board right off the bat.
Now, it seems like I would have jumped ship pretty quickly, given the target demographic of the show was probably thirteen year old girls. But a) I have a weird love of teen melodrama and b) my enjoyment of a show is generally determined by whether or not there is a character I can vicariously live through, see also: Chuck, Buffy, et al. In the case of Gossip Girl, it was Dan Humphries, a teenager who fancies himself a writer.
All ridiculousness aside, there was an actual storyline about writing that struck a chord in me. Long story short, Dan wrote a book that was fiction, but was very clearly about himself and his friends. And he said a few not so flattering things about the people in his life. He had to defend himself over and over again, generally going to the “I changed things for the story” argument which, I think, is a legitimate one, given how often I do that myself.
Anyway, it got me thinking about how much writers share about their own lives, and the self-imposed ceiling on such things. Take a book like Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis, for example. It’s easy to see just how much of it is autobiographical, to the point that you wonder how people in Ellis’ family reacted when it was published.
Here’s the funny thing about writing: they say truth is stranger than fiction, but fiction is often more upsetting. I wrote an entire book of non-fiction and, aside from a few spots here and there, none of the people in that book were upset with any part of it. Yet had I taken artistic license with any of it, twisted it to serve my purposes and slapped a “fiction” label on it, I would bet fat stacks of cash that those same people would be incredibly upset.
The problem, of course, is that it’s hard to separate fact from fiction when the fiction hits so close to home.
This all got me thinking about how I censor myself. There is a ceiling for my honesty, a ceiling on how directly I’m willing to address people I know. I’m am very aware of who will end up reading my work, or at least who could end up reading my work. I’m aware of how what I write might upset the people in my life.
I wonder if that is diminishing what I produce. I know that there are aspects of my life that are worth writing about that I have never even considered putting down on paper for fear of the fall out. There’s a clear disconnect between what every day people consider polite conversation and what writers consider fodder for stories. That is to say, writers consider everything fodder for stories.
There’s an episode of Californication where Hank Moody finds out his dad died. In the flashbacks, we see that he and his dad never got along, and that they eventually almost quit talking completely because his dad was so upset about the fictional father figures Hank wrote about. He assumed (probably correctly) that every father figure in all of Hank’s stories were based on him…even though all of Hank’s stories were works of fiction.
People always do that.
I wrote a book about a decade ago and in that book is a married couple. My parents assumed that the married couple were two particular friends of mine who were, at that time, the only friends in my life that were married. Those characters weren’t my friends; the thought never even crossed my mind. But my parents filled in that blank for themselves.
The glamorous version of a writer is the one who is estranged from his or her family and who doesn’t have any close friends that have been around for more than a few years, or at the very least not from before the writer became famous. This is because the writer has cut all ties with his or her past, and is thus free to write about those people or analogs for those people when ever she or he wants. Being an honest writer means being free from the influence of others.
But that’s not really possible, is it?
Or maybe it’s just not possible for me.
Years and years ago I shared some short stories with my parents. I was living in Los Angeles at the time and they were (and are) back in Ohio, so the added distance made me feel okay with giving them some of my work. Besides, I figured if my end goal was to get these things published, they’d end up reading them, anyway.
Months and months later my parents sent me a letter (an attachment to an e-mail, actually) where they expressed concern with some things I said in one of my stories. They didn’t mention it specifically, but I have no doubts they were referring to a story in which the main character has sex with his then girlfriend and certain things happen, certain things that seem kind of specific to both myself and another person who had been in my life.
I acknowledged their concerns, but I was a bit put off, not because they were worried about the content of one of my stories, but because months had gone by, which meant they didn’t really think these stories were going to get out any time soon to reflect poorly on me or anyone else in my life.
Funny enough, that story has long since died on the vine.
My father tends to assume that 90% of what I write is true. My mother seems to assume that at least 50% of it is true. They’re both overshooting. Generally speaking, my writing takes a small grain of my life and grows it into a field. Perhaps 10% of my fiction really happened.
Still, I do wonder if the fact that there’s a limit to what I’ll write about might be holding me back. But I also wonder if any of the things I don’t write about are actually worth the real impact it would have on my life.
We can claim that we write for ourselves all we want, but in the end that’s never entirely true — at least not for most of us.