Monday, January 7, 2013

Friends and Fodder

Well, it's happened. I've finally been caught writing about people I know in a non-fictional way, and now I'm hiding in my closet in case anyone's mad at me. I was sitting around a few weeks ago, compiling the 2013 recommendations for my book club when I had an essay idea. Two days later (record time for me), I was sending the finished piece out. It was quickly accepted at The Millions.

So, what's the big deal, you ask? It's not like I wrote anything nasty about anyone. I love my book club, and the people in it. The essay deals with my experience being the only writer in the club and my observations of how our reading tastes have changed over the past decade, which doesn't necessarily bode well for my own fiction-writing career.

The fear over the essay's publication started only when I showed it to my closest friend/club member. She was surprised, nar I say, shocked! that I was not just a mild-mannered member of the club, but a bit of a spy. Here I am, participating in meetings yet secretly mulling over the things people say about the books we read, considering our discussions in terms of my own work.


And I was shocked right back! How could I leave my professional life at the door of our meetings, I asked? If you invite a chef over to dinner, does he not notice the food? But it really has gotten me thinking...

Perhaps I should have my poet-lawyer friend (everyone should have one of these) draw up a contract explaining that anything my friends and family say and do can appear in my writing. Everything's fair game. Everything's potential fodder for my work.

You know the disclaimers in novels that say any resemblance to actual people, events or locales is coincidental? Yeah, well, you know that's not exactly true, right? Dave Eggers famously skewered that phrase in "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius." He writes, "Any resemblance to persons living or dead should be plainly apparent to them and those who know them..."

As a fiction writer, I'm continually creating characters, events, locations, yet how can they not draw in some way from my own life? Sure, the similarities may be minor. For example, a character might have the same nervous habit of shrugging her shoulders as a certain someone I know. But, otherwise, the character's nothing like her.

This is not to say writers don't have their own, passive-aggressive fun on the page. I admit I have taken real-life mean people, turned them into very thinly disguised fictional characters, and punished them in my stories. There was a particularly vicious girl who lived in my college dorm who made a cameo as a narcissistic mother in my debut novel.

In revision, however, I cut her. She was a one-note character and deserved to be cut, but oh, it was still fun, and cathartic, to write her in, however briefly. I work out a dozen emotions, sometimes daily, tapping away at my keyboard. Saves tons on counseling fees.

But I guess I do need to be a bit more careful now that my publications are increasing, now that I'm writing more non-fiction, and the venues where I'm publishing have a larger audience. I can't hide as easily, and that's a good thing, of course, yet I feel like my sensitive skin still needs a bit more toughening up to be exposed to critics, whether they be strangers or friends.

I think I just need to write, publish, not worry so much, and buy this shirt I saw on Zazzle.com. What do you think? A wearable disclaimer that will serve as my uniform. I'm starting a new book this year, so consider yourself warned.



 

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