New on my website: an audio clip of me reading the third chapter of Writing Magic, the chapter called “Shut Up!”
On April 22, 2011, Mya wrote, “....I've had a few incidents happen in my life that are definitely out of the ordinary, and involve love.=) I'm just dying to pen it down, but I wonder how I should do so, without making it obviously similar to what really happened, so that I don't feel like I'm offending the other people's privacy. Any help?=)
Say, for instance, in real life Ira kissed Ondine tentatively, a quick peck. Ondine set down her big purple pocketbook for a longer, more satisfying meeting of the lips. Just as her arms went around Ira’s neck, a three-legged dog ran off with the purse and a chase through Riverfront Park ensued. Later that night, Ondine told her friend Priscilla the whole story, which ended with the recovery of the purse but no more kisses.
If Priscilla asks and gets permission from Ira and Ondine to write the incident down, even to post it on her blog, she’s home free, even if Ira’s father isn’t happy when he happens to read the post. But if she posts the story, names included, without asking, I say it’s an invasion of privacy, whether or not Ondine explicitly said the anecdote was confidential.
However, some believe that the price of friendship or even family connection with a writer is the chance of being exposed in print. Writers write, so this reasoning goes, and everything is fodder.
Now let’s say Priscilla loves the anecdote and she’s a writer but also a loyal friend. She lets a year go by then writes a short story that revolves around this incident, but she changes the names of the characters. The story is one of her best and it’s published in a magazine neither Ira nor Ondine or any of their friends or relatives ever read.
Is this okay?
I’m not sure. I think so, as long as the names were changed. It’s certainly fine if Priscilla calls Ira Anthony and Ondine Sonya and she has Sonya kiss Anthony first, and Anthony sets down his Moroccan leather briefcase, which is taken by a three-legged coyote on 169th Street in New York City. Priscilla has definitely changed enough, more than enough, to protect the privacy of the real players.
A few weeks ago I attended a reunion for retirees of a place where I used to work. I was the youngest one there and I’m not young, and some of it made me sad, so afterward I wrote a poem in which I changed the names and a few details but not many. I think it’s a good poem, and I may send it out to see if anybody wants to publish it. No one who was there will read it, and even if they did, I doubt they’d mind.
In Priscilla’s case, she may have improved the story by altering it, which often happens. You cast about for ways to change the events without losing their essence and ideas pop up that add interest. Sometimes the essence actually becomes more concentrated. Real life meanders. Fiction is tighter.
You can also combine true stories. Think about romantic moments in your life and in the lives of people you know. Ask your parents and other relatives about their dating days. Ask friends, teachers, librarians. List what you get and stare at the list. Maybe you’ve got these three among others: The first time Daryl met Frank he had a hamster poking out of his shirt pocket. Gene wouldn’t date Hester until she stopped smoking cigarettes. Joanne was on her way to meet Kenneth when her car got a flat and Leonard stopped to help her, and that was the beginning of their romance.
I’ve probably mentioned before that years ago I was asked to contribute to a book of memoirs by kids’ book writers about their grandmothers. I had only one since my father was an orphan, and I hated her. The editor said that was okay. So I used family history and added fictional elements, but before I went ahead I called her last living child, my uncle, the only one whose permission I felt counted. He said I could write whatever I wanted and added an anecdote or two to my collection. If he had asked me not to, however, I would have honored his wishes. The story was published in an anthology called In My Grandmother’s House, which is out of print but probably available online. Most of the pieces in it are about charming, cookie-baking grandmas.
My sister, who supplied the event that fuels the story, was delighted because I recaptured a long-ago place and time. In the writing, details came back to me that I’d forgotten.
Intention counts. I didn’t write the story to be mean or to hurt feelings. If you’re respecting the real life people, if you’re even honoring them, they’re likely to be pleased. They may feel important and be gratified that you paid attention. My friend Joan, who had a brain injury, likes it when I write a poem about her even when it reflects the downside of memory loss.
I’m not a memoirist, and even in the grandma book my contribution was fiction. If you’re writing about something that happened to you, if you’re not telling someone else’s story, I don’t know that you need to censor yourself at all. Let’s say, for instance, you’re writing about your tenth grade year when you had two boyfriends although they didn’t know about each other. Let’s say three years have passed since then but you still know both of them although neither is currently romantically involved with you. Well, you may want to consider the consequences of revealing your past double love life (they may be mad at you), but if you decide to go ahead I don’t think there are any moral impediments. It’s your life. You own the rights to it.
These prompts are based on the post.
∙ Inquire into the romantic pasts of people you know. Romance heightens memory, so you’ll probably hear funny and poignant stories. Cobble them together into a story of your own, changing the names and fictionalizing here and there.
∙ Use my invented anecdotes about Daryl, Frank, Gene, Hester, Joanne, Kenneth, and Leonard and weave them into a story.
∙ Priscilla posts Ondine’s story on her blog. Ondine is merely furious, but Ira, also a writer, is vengeful. Write what happens.
∙ There is nothing wrong with writing what you shouldn’t reveal if you don’t reveal it. Write solely for your own purposes a story you have no business sharing with anyone. If you feel like being mean, be mean. If you have feelings that might not meet with general approval, include them. Hide what you’ve written where it won’t be found but don’t destroy it. A day may come when no harm will be done by sharing. And you may want to look at it now and then.
Have fun, and save what you write!