The No-Apologies Guide to Writing What Needs to Be Written
I love quotes. I’m fascinated by them…have lists of them in all sorts of places. Hand-written, on my laptop, on the cloud. Inked on my skin. The ones that strike especially close to home, I want to keep with me, everywhere.
As a writer, who is sometimes conflicted about what to write and what not to write, this one stood out to me as soon as I read it. I return to it often:
“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, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Trust me, I understand not wanting to air your dirty laundry. There’s dirty laundry…and then there are the undies you’ve had to turn inside out and wear again because you forgot to do the laundry. I. Have. Been. There. I’ve messed up in my life.
I Have Regerts
I’ve spent years trying to come to terms with some of the things I’ve done — from locking a nun in a bathroom (she was mean, and it’s still kinda funny) to dating a guy who turned out to be racially intolerant (it was a blind date and I didn’t know, but still…major regert).
The Rearview Mirror
The thing about looking backward is that we are able to see exactly where we took the wrong turns. That whole thing about 20/20 vision and hindsight? It’s true.
But here’s what else I’ve learned. There’s no possible way to make it through the roadmap of life without making a wrong turn here and there. It’s how we learn and grow. It’s how we learned to walk and talk. We fell a few times; we adorably said ‘shit’ instead of ‘sit’ a few times.
All of our mistakes — and what we learn from them — come together to make us who we are.
Should I Write That?
A LOT of our ideas come from personal experience, so it’s not a stretch to say there’s a little bit of truth in all of our writing. But there’s a gray line between truth and fiction, and it’s easy to find ourselves in the ‘should I really write that’ conundrum?
So what if the protagonist in your latest novel has a whole lot in common with Crazy Aunt Laurel? They both happen to be hoarders with more than 37 cats living in abandoned grain silos in Kansas. They are both fascinatingly gifted with eidetic memories and often tapped by the FBI for their abilities. Other than those minor details, there are no similarities whatsoever.
Your dilemma? Your character is brilliant, and your readers will love her! But Aunt Laurel isn’t going to be thrilled. Should you write the character you’ve developed?
The Reality of Fiction
Many of the people in our real worlds don’t enjoy the half-truths we share in our make-believe worlds. Again, I get it. If I didn’t want anyone to know about the Grape MadDog (for the love of all that is holy) that I snuck in high school, I probably shouldn’t have paid that senior with the fake I.D. twenty bucks for it.
I chose the cat hoarder lady example above because it’s fairly innocuous. Did Aunt Laural really, truly, deep down in her cat-loving soul believe that no one would EVER notice the fact that she has 37 cats? Of course not! What she wanted to do was HIDE the fact that she has a cat hoarding problem.
The Line Is Still Gray
There’s really no hard and fast rule. You’ve seen the “shocking” best sellers and tell-all insider tales that get released on the regular. Some writers have no qualms about literally telling ALL. The decision is yours. Just remember that with that decision come repercussions. (You will not be getting a Christmas card from Aunt Laurel if you call her out by name and neglect to change up at least a few of the facts!)
Most writers probably fall somewhere in the middle. Life gives us ideas. And then imagination, our muse, and a teensy-tiny bit of maybe-I-shouldn’t-write-that work together to help us come up with a recreated version of “alternate facts.” (Thank you, Kelly Anne Conway for this term.)
You Are But the Scribe
In the end, if you ever question whether or not you have permission to write the truth…sure, you do! It’s already out there. They, whoever is inspiring you at the moment, created the story…you’re just writing it down.