Tuesday, April 22, 2008

What Will People Think?

The older I get, the easier it becomes to fictionalize painful feelings, awkward emotions and other uncomfortable subjects.

In my youth and young adult years, I found myself in the midst of constant drama and I wasn’t capable of writing much that wasn’t pure personal angst, but now that I am as grown up as I plan to be, the school of hard knocks is behind me. With the distance that time and growth afford, I can reflect on emotion, examine it and re-purpose it to fit fictional characters without much trouble at all.

But there is still a part of me that hesitates when I describe loss, love or humiliation. It’s not the strangers who might read my words and make assumptions about who I am that give me pause. That doesn’t concern me for a minute. I worry that the people who knew the most about me at some point in my life will believe the squirmy parts to be more memoir than fiction.

After all, we never really change all that much in the minds of those who knew us when, do we?

I’ve often wondered if writing truthfully and accessing painful emotions is easier now that neither of my parents is alive. I wonder if it would be possible for me to write some of the things I do if I had children of my own who might read me. There are things I’ve written in recent years that I might not have if I had a larger family. I think perhaps at one time I was afraid there were people who would see too much truth in what they’d read and take it personally.

Do people do that?

Maybe I assume people read more into my work than they do.

I suppose I make certain assumptions about authors whose work I find particularly brave or honest. When authors access emotion that grabs me by the throat or the heart, I just know they’ve experienced that emotion. But that author is a stranger and my perceptions are general in nature. I don’t know the facts of their lives.

What do you think? Do you avoid writing about certain thoughts, or emotions or even about sex or violence because of how you think those closest to you will see you or because perhaps you’re afraid they might see themselves? If your parents are no longer living, has it changed your writing? Does having children change the way you approach your writing?


Larramie said...

There has been some anecdotal research done on women whose mothers have passed away and the "results" show that these women not only feel freer -- without their mothers to judge them --, but their lives take a different direction and/or purpose. And, while I can't vouch for the validity and extent of this change in behavior, it would explain your thoughts/feelings, Lisa.

Patti said...

my writing is totally influenced by whom i might hurt if i give up the entire truth. writing the truth is the hardest thing to do, and the hardest thing to read because we identify ourselves through the words.

when i read a truth that is clearly the powerful thing that it is, i find myself looking around to see if anyone saw me catch my breath.

Patti said...

i got the book! you rock, g/f! i thank you. the purple toe thanks you....

kristenspina said...

I think (and someone will correct me if I am wrong) it was Julia Alvarez's novel Yo, that dealt with this very subject in a fun and humorous sort of way. Not that you need another title for your TBR pile, but you might want to check it out.

And yes, writing honestly and truthfully is hard, because someone you love will always see themselves in those words and interpret them in ways you never intended...but if you don't write the truth, there really is no point.

steve said...

Both my parents are deceased, though I have a living stepmother. I'm not sure whether that's affected my writing. I'm not sure whether I would have done a sex scene if my mother were alive. Or I might have written one and not mentioned it to her. I had no problem sending the chapter with the sex scene to my stepmother.

As for children--the only one who seems interested in the story is the one who isn't a creative writer.

I don't think the characters in my Dickens Challenge novel are based on anyone in particular, exept for Timothy, who's a lot like me.

Rebecca Burgess said...

I may sound really cold in saying this...but I think it is almost absolutely necessary to get to a point where you almost don't care, or at the very least, don't think about it all that much.

You can't candy coat it or worry about who's feelings may be hurt or how embarassed you will be. Not one of us is perfect and, in my opinion, the most interesting books are the ones about just how far from perfect we all reside.

Lisa said...

Larramie, That makes complete sense. My mother has been gone since I was very young so I don't think that liberation directly applies to me, but a friend of mine who lost her mother as an adult said something very similar.

Patti, I think truth comes through very clearly. Sometimes I find myself reading a book and shaking my head because I feel like somehow the author chickened out and didn't go far enough.

Kristen, Nope, I don't think there's much point in writing if you're not willing to take risks. The interesting thing about this phenomenon to me is that I think it's very easy to fictionalize from an emotion rooted in reality and sometimes those closest to you will try to find the reality in the fiction. I suppose that's just something you have to risk because you can't control it.

Steve, That's exactly my parental situation. My stepmother is still alive but my father and mother aren't and it's interesting, but I think I'd have had much more trouble (than I already do) writing a sex scene if my father was still alive. I'm pretty close to my step son but I don't think it would ever occur to him to read what I write, which is fine with me! I have certainly drawn heavily from my younger self to create the messy Tracy character, but it's mostly when I have to get her to feel something. And I'm not sure how I would write pain or disappointment other than by going into that well of how I remember those kinds of feelings at that age. Doesn't everyone have to do that?

Rebecca, I don't think it sounds cold at all. I watched an interview with a southern novelist once and he said something to the effect that writing is getting naked in front of the world and getting to the meat and the bone. Perhaps the writers who were the most unhappy and/or suicidal were those who did it while they were still in the throes of their greatest pain. I think the writing that is the most true will be that writing that's the closest to the bone and each writer has to decide how important it is to her truth to tell truths that may impact other people. It's an interesting thing to me that people who know a writer seem to want to see the familiar in the fiction, whether it's intended to be there or not and I think that's something we have to learn to either deal with or ignore if we're serious.

Yogamum said...

Such interesting questions. I do think that I hold back a bit because of concern for how people who know me might read my work. But I am a naturally reserved person -- a recovering introvert.

I do feel that since my dad's illness and death, that I do have more access to stronger emotions in my writing. Maybe it's just because I'm feeling more.

Lisa said...

Yogamum, I love your description of yourself as a "recovering introvert". I feel kind of that way myself.

I absolutely identify with the strong emotions so close to the surface so close to your father's death. I think something else that's tied to having gone through that kind of loss at the age that you are (and that I was 3 years ago) is that epiphany that occurred when it was all happening that there is very little that really matters.

Until my father was dying, I was on a gerbil wheel of career and consumerism and all the rest of it and then the world shrank to a small circle of my father, my stepmother, my siblings and those people who loved my father and I understood then how there are very few things in life that are worth wasting time on and worrying about.

In the aftermath, that includes worrying about what most people think. In the aftermath, it's probably also about the kind of thing you posted about. It's sort of about recognizing that we need to share our feelings and tell people they're important to us. The flip side of that coin may be that we need to tell the emotional truth of who we are through our work.

I dunno :)

Riss said...

Hey there-

I asked Tim the same questions you asked about how to write truthfully. It takes a lot of process time and consideration for me before using things in my life that would "make good writing" (everything is material in the end) because I'm terrified of being thought of in that way. I don't worry so much about what my parents think because they won't ever read my work-not their thing I don't think. If my mom did though, I know she'd freak and that is always in the back of my brain when I'm writing. It's a hard voice to gag. And yes, I too worry about the ones closest to me recognizing themselves. But-I think in the end most people don't realize that their own sh*t stinks and won't recognize their own worst traits put on the page. Margaret Atwood says: "The only way to write the truth is to pretend that the people it's about will never read it". I think that's as good as it gets for an answer.

Ilse is totally me, but with an extra dose of crazy. (c:

liz fenwick said...

I find it is getting easier with each book.....the fisrt one I felt as if my mother was sitting on my shoulder as I wrote the sex scenes - hence they are wooden beyond belief. In the next book I loosened up a bit but held back when I was in the hero's head because it was fairly crude at times and I didn't want to shock my mother or my kids. This current wip I didn't hold back at all in the first draft - no one would need to see except me and the quality of the writing has improved dramtically.

I do worry about my kids reading it but as they are getting older it's easy. My mother read book two and loved it. She hasn't seen the wip in progress and I doubt I'll run that past her until it's in print :-)

Strangely I don't worry about my dad will think?????

It is funny now that I have met so many authors that I can hear and see them in the books they write. I have to say this is not always positive!

Lisa said...

Riss, I think the Atwood quote is perfect. Of course my preferred reaction to comparisons is "What? Where would you get the idea that any of these alcoholics, drug addicts and crazy people have any resemblance to anyone we know???" ;)

Liz, It sounds like your experience bears out the study that Larramie mentions at the top of the comments!

I'm not sure who I'm so paranoid about, but I don't know if I'll ever be able to write a proper sex scene without feeling embarrassed. I'm not a prude, but I tend to make jokes in real life about anything I don't like talking about and I can't do that when I write (or at least I haven't tried that angle yet).

Good point about the dual edged sword of meeting writers in person. There's a reason a lot of us sit behind a laptop and not in front of a camera!

debra said...

I lost my mother 10 yrs ago, and my Dad last July. I am a different person as an adult orphan. I am much freer, albeit a bit more wistful.

Anonymous said...

Lisa, this is a fascinating post. It never occurred to me to be inhibited by another's judgment or sensitivities. My loyalty is first and foremost to the story. It wasn't until very recently that it occurred to me how I will be judged. I think it helps that my book isn't about people I know or even me, but I do hope people will like my characters, my story, my writing. Gillian Flynn, author of SHARP OBJECTS, had to reiterate in interviews that she had a happy childhood and has a healthy relationship with her parents. She wrote a work of fiction, though readers often made the mistake of thinking it autobiographical. Flynn wrote a passionate, dark story with abandon, and my goodness it was good. If you want to be the best writer you can be, throw away your inhibitions.


Judy Merrill Larsen said...

A friend and I use to joke that we could never write erotica as long as our moms are alive--but there's some truth there (not that I have any interest in breaking into that market!). With my first novel, my main character was so much like me--and I knew that and had no problem with it. My friends and family all were cool with that. With my second finished MS, there are some scenes that might make people who know me squirm--but I think they're supposed to make all readers squirm. They're intense and painful.

That's where it gets tricky as a reader and as a writer--when I read a really intense scene and I know the writer, I do catch myself wondering how the writer knew to write those particular details. Then, of course, I have to step back and remind myself that as writers we get to inhabit all sorts of worlds . . . in our minds.

When I'm actually writing though,, I never think about my reader--because that might censor me--my only responsibility is to my characters and their truth.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely right on target with the worry a writer feels about being taken too seriously by friends and family as being fact instead of fiction.

I've got to link to this post!


Missy k said...

I don't write fiction, but I've noticed that I hold back a lot in my blogging, mostly because my mom reads it -- not much cursing, sex, topics that might be hurtful or offensive. Sometimes I wish I had starting blogging anonymously, because I do feel a bit boxed in.

Greg said...

roll through it. that kinda stuff is riveting!


Greg said...

p.s. your blog is great

Melissa Marsh said...

Hmm. Very good discussion here. For me, my writing is heavily influenced by the editor or agent who will read it, and not my family. I think that you can really trip yourself up and not reveal the real writer within you if you constantly worry about how others will respond to it.

Lana Gramlich said...

I'm not a writer, of course, but I've found all aspects of life easier once I decided not to give a crap what anyone thought. Of course, it's not like I had a close family or anything, so it was easy for me to do, but it really has helped.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've had this problem with my mom. Years and years ago I let her read a story I'd written and was very proud of. She looked up after with tears in her eyes and said, "is this what you think of me?" It tore my heart out because it had nothing to do with her. But she has always believed that I live my life by what she thinks or feels and so I don't show her anything I write anymore. My ex-wife did the same thing and so I stopped showing her anything I'd written.

Therese said...

I don't avoid anything, or even think about what family members or close friends might see (or think they see) in my work.

My only anxieties come from the "will they think it sucks?" direction. And even that is tempered by knowing that plenty of people don't think so.

However, if I had a relative respond the way Charles just described, I wouldn't have much choice but to be more aware/concerned.

For me, it's always about the story's truth--and if I've done my job well with writing that truth, it will be apparent to most everyone who reads it.

Shauna Roberts said...

After my mother died, and again after my father died, I had this feeling of freedom in that I could write anything I wanted and not have to explain or defend it to someone who was disappointed in me because of it. I've always gone my own path even when it wasn't the path my parents would have chosen for me. But it hurt me when my parents were hurt or upset or disappointed in my choice of path. Now, sadly, that is no longer a worry.

Lisa said...

Debra, I know what you mean. There is something oddly freeing about being an "orphan", but there's also something about it that makes me feel slightly -- unmoored? Does that make sense?

Amy, Based on the early indications about TETHERED, your instinct to focus on story first is obviously the way to go. There's no getting around the fact that creating characters and writing fiction exposes us somehow and maybe that's just part of the price of admission. I'm pretty sure that I and a whole lot of other people are going to love your characters, your story and your writing. I have a knack for knowing things sometimes :)

Judy, My hat is off to anyone who can write erotica! It'll never be me either. The prevailing wise advice seems to be that story and truth can't be compromised. I am really looking forward to reading your next book.

Susan, I suppose it's like anything else we do when we "put ourselves out there". I figure the good news is that the people most likely to get me wrong aren't that likely to read me if I ever get published.

Missy, Sometimes I forget that anyone in the universe can read what we put out here, but I don't worry too much about that. I suppose I'd feel weirdest about this blog if I thought my colleagues at work or my clients saw this side of me -- it's not much like my professional facade -- but I'd get over it. You can always start a second, anonymous blog. Lots of people have them.

Greg, You're too cool. I don't worry about you, "cuz" ;)

Lana, Sometimes I think the freedom not to have to worry about what people think is a small consolation prize for not having more close family. You have to get something out of it, right?

Charles, SEE! I knew things like that must happen. I'm sorry to hear that she can't see your work objectively. Well -- sounds like you're doing the right thing.

Therese, You are so right. The focus has to be on not sucking and truth. You've done extremely well with both!

Shauna, I know exactly when you say, "sadly, that is no longer a worry". I don't know how my mother would be. She was very young when she died (32), so I often try to imagine.

debra said...

makes perfect sense to me, Lisa. It wouldn't have made sense to me before I lost my Dad, but it sure does, now. The buffer between our generation and mortality is gone. The anchors to our pasts are only what we remember. It's a peculiar place to be.

Ello said...

I haven't thought of it in terms of my writing and my first WIP had a pretty good sex scene in it. But I know that I can't read certain things now that I have kids. For example, I found the Lovely Bones almost unbearable to read.

Carleen Brice said...

Great post Lisa. Sorry to be so late to the discussion. I absolutely was freed to write after my mother's death. I had a contract for my 1st book a year after she died.

I do think about what my family and friends will imagine about me when they read my books. SPOILER ALERT: I was actually relieved when I thought about the issue of Shay being a virgin because I'd bet my family thinks that's true of me when it wasn't. I think it might divert them from some of the other things that are real.

I don't think there's any getting around it though. We're going to tell on ourselves when we write and that may affect those who know us. But I would never intentionally write something that I knew would hurt a relative or friend.

Vesper said...

What a difficult problem, Lisa. I’ve often asked myself these questions and even more after starting my blog. For, although I don’t know in person any of my readers, because I think I know a bit of them through their words, I feel a bigger responsibility than when I used to be just myself, writing away in my little lair. I feel I’m doing a lot of self-censoring and I know I shouldn’t be doing it because it gets into the way of the creative process. But it’s more easily said than done.
Also my older daughter can read now very well and she’s started asking me questions about what I write. How will it be later when maybe she’ll ask to read something? I really don’t know. I dread the moment…

It’s weird to know a writer in person. Interesting but weird.
But I don’t necessarily think, when reading, that an author has lived a particular scene or feeling, nor do I judge him in any way for that. I admit I’m interested in the work itself and not in its author. Just as when I’m watching a movie I’m interested by the character created by an actor on the screen and not by the actor’s personal life.

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf