When I was growing up my dad used to gripe often about how Bing Crosby’s son wrote a book about how Bing was abusive and how those were lies. Now, I’m not calling anyone a liar or an abuser (I wasn’t there and I have not read Gary Crosby’s Going My Way), but the book caused a feud between the brothers as well as big time anger from Bing fans everywhere. To me it is of interest because I always knew I would write a book about my dad (and him not being very nice to me) and now I have. And I wondered if he always knew, too.
“If any of you ever write a book about me, tell it to my face first,” my dad once bellowed.
But now my father has dementia. It’s a large part of my book. When I tell him I’ve written about my mother and my childhood and our family he says, “That’s great, sweetie.”
So — things change. If we’re lucky/unlucky/what-the-fucky.
There are several schools of thought on what to do about writing sensitive material about real people. The conclusion I’ve come to, for the most part, is that no one cares. I’ve heard it from several different writers I trust, including my mentor, Linda Sivertsen. No one gives a shit about what we’re writing. Our friends, for the most part, aren’t going to read our books. Hey, maybe if you live in a really enmeshed family, your peeps will read your book. But mine have only recently read mine (and I don’t know if any of them have finished it).
Here’s the thing — be respectful and be honest. Now, I’m not suggesting if someone was horrible to you that you should not share that. SHARE THAT. Do it. That’s the “be honest” part. But I’m talking about the smaller stuff. For example, I was editing my book and came across a part where I said one of my childhood friends was known to tell a fib or two. On this new editing pass that even seemed too much. So I added “innocent”: “…known to tell an innocent fib or two.” Because she was seven years old and if she read it now I would not want her to think I was calling her a liar. She’s grown into a wonderful woman and deserves respect.
Then there are the moments I’ve written about, like the ex-boyfriend who bit my arms and took up all the emotional space. I wrote honestly about that. And the narcissist in him will probably be thrilled I wrote about him at all. So I’m kind of doing him a favor. At least that’s what I tell myself when I think about him reading an honest account of our relationship. Because it’s a little scary.
But to get back to respect and honesty: to me, capturing to the best of my memory/knowledge what happened in my life and who was there is one of the cornerstones of good writing. I’ve seen writers embellish descriptions of people to make their writing seem “cooler,” and I’m always like, “WHY?!!!” To capture the truth of someone is huge. They say never work with children or animals because their naturalness will upstage you every time — the same goes for writing true characters. Making up characters is awesome (and obviously what you do in fiction most often), but you can also get a lot of emotional mileage out of just capturing someone on the page to the best of your ability.
Of course there’s that scene in the Netflix show The Crown (which I love) where Winston Churchill (John Lithgow) freaks out because his modernist portraitist captures the age and decay of his person. And the painter tells him he painted age and decay because he saw age and decay.
Joan Didion writes, “writers are always selling somebody out.” Yeah, that’s true. So, we deal with it. We breathe through the sensitivity that arises as we sell our people out on the page. But, like, let’s not make ourselves think we have more power than we do. I return to: no one cares. So like that dorky old “dance like no one is watching” (which is, admittedly, pretty good advice), write like no one cares. Because they don’t. It might feel like they do, but they don’t.
Ok, but like that’s not totally true either. The other night I was reading a piece from my book to my husband (for the first time in the two years I’ve been writing it) and he suggested I do not use a loaded religious word because it is secret and LDS people might get pissed at me. While I actually think this is kind of hilarious I decided to change the end of the piece and remove the word. The word wasn’t really doing much anyway and I wrote a better ending. So that’s a thing to think about: everything is an opportunity for improvement in your work. Don’t delete everything, but get creative and see what comes up. Consider an alternative to “my brother is an asshole,” for example. See where the writing takes you.
And then there is the piece about protecting (perhaps abusive) people about whom we’re writing, which I’ve discussed with several writing friends. It’s such a common scenario to find amongst writers, I think, because so many of us found a voice on the page when we felt like it wasn’t safe to have one in real life. So many of us are struggling with just letting ourselves have the freedom to tell our truth.
Here is what I do know: it is healing to get these stories on the page. The scared inner child doesn’t have to be the loudest voice, but she does need some tending to. My therapist has told me to put my hand on my stomach and say, “Shhh shhh.” Let that little inner scared kid know we’re here, and that we’re in the NOW and not THEN. And sometimes he/she does take you over and you just need to cry at the keyboard. But know you are giving her a voice, which is so often what she needs (and what we need). And maybe that’s scary, too, because it’s new.
It's me, Jennifer Bernice (rhymes with "Furnace": it was my Granny's name) Sutkowski
• More details about my writing here.