Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Can I base fiction on my real experiences? - Writing tip

This week we had a question about doing autobiographical stories. That can be touchy. Very touchy, if family members will be reading them. I've heard people say, "If my family doesn't like what I write about them, let them write their own stories." I've heard others -- John Irving among them -- deny their fiction has any basis in reality at all. After Irving wrote "THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP," an interviewer pointed out to him that Garp's mother, like his own, was a nurse in a private school, a single parent, a women's rights advocate who was extremely politically active. He then asked if Garp's mother was based on Irving's own, well-known, parent. "Obviously not," Irving replied. "Garp's mother is dead. Mine's alive."

Whatever has happened or will happen to you is yours, to write about or not. Since we have to live in the real world, however, I urge you not to reveal other people's secrets, or write hurtful things about them, if they will recognize themselves. The key word is IF. When she was in the early stages of Alzheimer's my mother-in-law could say many hurtful things. Only later did we realize they were born of her own anger and frustration. But for several years she had not one nice thing to say about, or to, anyone. To complicate matters she was a cancer survivor and imagined every new small illness into the Big C. The urge to kill arose daily, and I dipped my pen and put her -- almost verbatim -- into a short story that later became my novel KILLRAVEN. I did set it back in time and make the character a bit younger than she, but essentially the situation was the same -- a mother-in-law who was driving her son and his wife to distraction. I gave her shingles, which she imagined into the C-word. I quoted her nasty observations word for word. What the hell, she wasn't a reader and thought my writing "silly." Why not? After all, even if it was published she'd never see it.

When a writer friend read my story she fell into fits of giggles, recognizing without any difficulty, some of Mom's ruder remarks. Later, we went to a writers group meeting, and when we returned, my mother-in-law handed me my story, with the comment, "I just wanted to see what Little Ticklebritches (her 'pet' name for my writer friend) thought was so funny!" I stood there stunned. I could have died! "Well," she continued, "It wasn't funny at all. It was downright sad. The way that mean old woman talked to that girl! She ought to have had her mouth washed out with soap!"

I learned two lessons that day. The first was to be as kind as possible and to disguise any "real" people thoroughly. The second was that people rarely see themselves in unpleasant characters. Even with her very own words tripping off the character's tongue, Mom identified with the protagonist. Something never did in real life.

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