“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better." -- Anne Lamott
I don't think I can begin to tell you how true this quote is. It's true for me, at least; and it seems to be true for my writing buddies. I wonder, though, if most people who interact with writers think they are immune to the pen.
Every story I've written is full of characters that are based on people I know and interactions I've had with them. "Write what you know," right? Well, I know my best friends, my ex-spouses, my parents, my boss, my "frenemies," junior high bullies, that grouchy lady at the Post Office, and the candid and crazy troupe of folks I have met at festivals and conventions. I know the pain of my recent divorce and the dis-ease that was its herald. I know the impotence of an online fight with a friend, the shock and shame of molestation, and the heart-crushing fear of seeing your child in real pain.
I told my ex-wife (Glaux) recently that I didn't think she was the best candidate to beta-read my main work-in-progress. I know she's eager to see how the story has progressed. I read the first chapter aloud to her just after I wrote it, and that reading evolved into a really steamy moment for us. One of our last steamy moments, actually. Within two months, she left and I filed for divorce. I let the book (To Call Ye Forth, the first in the Witches' Rune series) simmer for a while, and when I picked it up again, I was ready to work through some of the issues that had festered between us before she left. Our break-up isn't a major theme in the book, but it plays a role.
Glaux will undoubtedly have parts (both big and small) in several books, I imagine. One of my back-burnered WIPs (Temple of Beauty) features her in a very loving and compassionate way, while still tackling issues around her bipolar disorder. (In case you're worried, I am not giving away secrets or talking out of turn about her struggle with mental illness. Glaux has long been an advocate for public discussion of all mental illness, as you can see on her blog.) She was a major part of my life for 7 years, and I have feelings both bright and dark related to her and my interactions with her.
"Well, that's understandable," you may say. "You were married."
Yes, true. But it isn't only my interactions with my family and closest friends that are mine to share. Stray interactions with strangers are mine, too. So are random things people say or do at a party. Yeah, you were drunk. No, you weren't talking to me. But you know what? You said that thing right out loud and in public. I heard it. It made me laugh (or made me squirm). It's mine now.
I have a couple of friends right now who are angry with me for posting a snippet of writing on my facebook page. I removed the names and all the identifying features -- so well, in fact that one of the main participants didn't recognize herself in the story. It wasn't until someone else (her partner -- and the only person I confirmed any identities to) said, "Oh, yeah. That was you," that she knew. Once she knew, she went supernova.
And why? I have my theories. The main one is that she is ashamed of her behavior. That's ironic to me, actually, because I saw her as the victim in the scene. I didn't think she'd done anything wrong. Wrong had been done to her, from my perspective Then again, I suppose victims have as much right to despise themselves through outside eyes as much as villains do. Indeed, I would go so far as to speculate that victims are as likely to cover up abuse as their abusers are, and for largely the same reason. Shame.
Here's the rub, though. If you hate seeing what you've said or done in print (and especially when nobody could easily guess that YOU were the one who said or did it), then your real issue is NOT with the person who wrote it down. Your real issue is with yourself.
Holding up a mirror to the ugliness and the beauty, the strength and the weakness, the valor and the villainy within a single person -- that's what a writer does. Writing is therapy for me. I use it to poke at the uncomfortable places and to bring light out of the darkness -- or to remind myself that the brightest of lights casts the darkest of shadows.
I won't stop, either.
If I don't include the intimate moments, the private confessions, the secret struggles, then I haven't written anything of substance. Nobody wants to read the story of a hero and her friends who never screw up, always say the polite thing, and don't have regrets. It's how we deal with the mud that shows us whether we can make (or BE) diamonds.
The only protection you get from the pen (not just mine, but every writer's pen) is that I won't use your name, and I will never again confirm or deny who a character is based on. If you don't know, then it doesn't matter.