Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Family ties

With the completion of Split, our Humble Fiction Café anthology, I found myself faced with a difficult task: letting my family read it. Not that my family – namely my mother, grandmother, and grandfather – aren’t supportive of my writing. They think I hung the moon, and I can’t imagine them thinking anything I wrote is less than brilliant.

Well, almost anything.

The problem is that for one of my stories, “Fade to Gray”, the story that ended up being the very first one in the book (no chance of hiding it), I borrowed liberally from my own family and life experiences for two of the characters and part of the plot. And these are not admirable characters, nor a cheerful plot.

In actual fact, the mother in the story, the “villain,” is neither my mother nor my grandmother. Thank heavens. She does, however, have some not-so-nice characteristics taken from each of them. And my grandfather, a recovered alcoholic, could possibly be seen in the father who is, you guessed it, another villain.

Now, I love, and I mean absolutely adore, my three “parents”. They did a fine, if somewhat unconventional, job of raising me, and we remain almost pathologically close to this day. Which is why I never let them read “Fade to Gray.” I didn’t want to hurt their feelings. And, to be honest, I just didn’t want to open up that can of worms. Why ask for trouble?

However, this is one of the best stories I’ve ever written, and I wasn’t willing to pull it from the book. If I wanted them to see the book (and I did), I’d have to let them read the story. So a couple of weeks after the book came out (I’d told them nothing about the book project because I wasn’t sure I could actually let them read it), I faced the music and showed them the story. It wasn’t pretty. My mother cried. My grandmother and grandfather had a huge fight, each convinced the other had ruined my life. It was traumatic for all concerned.

And yet we survived it. They all seem to have forgiven me, although my grandmother now refuses to touch things in my house without asking first because the mother in the story is – to put it mildly – meddlesome, and my mother keeps looking at me sideways and saying, “you better never,” because the daughter in the story ends up killing herself. My grandfather is maintaining absolute silence on the subject, although he has praised the book in general.

All of which is a long-winded way of musing about whether or not you should borrow from your own life for your writing. All the books say “write about what you know,” but I think there should be a disclaimer saying “don’t write about WHO you know… unless you’re willing to face the music.” I think any time we borrow from real-life people and situations to create our fiction – unless we’re sickeningly sweet about it – we are taking the risk of hurting people. And we have to weigh that risk against the emotional power it gives our writing. Is it worth it?

I think every writer has to answer that for herself. Are you using real-life people and situations because they’re vital to the story, or are you just taking jabs at people? Is the story compelling enough, and are you compelled enough to write it, to make it worth the damage it might do? Is this story important enough to you that you’re willing to live with the consequences?

At the end of the day, I don’t regret the story. It’s good, even if I do say so myself, and I’m proud of it. But I do wish I could have done it without hurting the people I love.

-- Kelli D. Meyer


Loretta said...

Hi Kelli, I'm new here:)

In reading your post, I just thought that yes, you're probably right in most circumstances...trying to write about people you know can be very disconcerting:) And as you said, writing about WHAT you know is very different than writing about WHO you know:)
Stephen King addresses writing about what you know in his On Writing...what you know can be something you've researched also, not just what's touched your life...
I think you felt compelled to write this and so you should have, but as you mentioned, we all have to weigh the costs of what we write.
It's also amazing how many people think that what you write about is either from something that happened to you, or someone you knew...I've even had one man ask if it was to "get even" with someone in my life.:) The character he was speaking of is a psychopath:)I doubt very seriously I would have lived to tell the tale if I HAD known him:)
I think your family did very well with it, and it shows that they do care about YOU more than their own feelings...which is a wonderful quality:)
Congratulations on the piece..and on having a solid support group in your family!


Joy said...

Concern for the feelings of family members is a big problem even when there is nothing about THEM in the work. I'm often hobbled by concerns for possible embarressment to my family and friends when I consider writing something that might stray from their perception of me or my role as wife, mother, grandmother, daughter, sister... A loving and involved family can be a two edged sword for a writer.