To begin a work that involves this, I think a writer needs to have a solid grasp on her sense of relationship. Without others in my life to challenge, push and inspire me simply by being their natural selves, I’d have nothing to offer as a writer. Maybe I should scratch that term. Writer. Perhaps it’s best someone who writes should act more as a storyteller when writing about people they know.
Across all genres it’s crucial to recognize that writing a character well is predicated upon knowing character through comparison. It’s a no-brainer in nonfiction, I argue. In poetry it’s the same scenario, that seeing a study as target for creation is based on how one understands someone else versus how she understands herself. This applies in fiction, too. Even in paranormal horror, dystopian literature, YA, children’s books, acknowledging differences and similarities connecting creator and created is how the relationship between reader and story takes hold. It has to come from the author first. Call it purity, if you will.
To make this clearer I have to use myself as example. I write fiction, memoir/personal essay and poetry. My debut novel is first-person. My second novel (currently with publishers) is third-person. My poetry collection is conversational and embraces the elements of a certain style of living. My second poetry collection speaks more to the exploration of human experience beyond what goes on in just my head. And the nonfiction book I’m writing now is just me, “speaking” casually as I’m doing now. Throughout them all, I’m involving someone if not a group of someones I know. They’re almost always aware of it.
Are you ever challenged by a person to write about them? It’s happened to me excessively. Sometimes people request an homage, while other times people say, “I better watch myself around you. You’ll write about me.” The academic response? Duh. For me most often it’s followed by the thought, “So stop being an ass.” Or don’t stop. If you’re a brilliant addition to what I’m writing, be yourself and I’ll be truthful. And I’ll be kind about how I apply that truth. That’s most important. Kindness in application. Truth is what it is on its own.
There’ve been instances where I’ve changed names in all my work. Not because what I was writing was offensive or set to embarrass someone, but rather, it was because we just didn’t get along well enough for me to ask if I could leave their names as is. As writers, most of us are broke and can’t sue, but you never know who’s got a trust fund and wants to own your happiness if not that and your royalties. And I write about everyone around me because I’m in a constant state of fascination, watching others do things my life direction and schedule don’t allow. But consideration is necessary.
I’ll use my mother and my husband to explain further. I’ve been writing at a somewhat professional level for ten years. Across this time my mother has asked what is now the age-old question, “When are you ever gonna write something about your ol’ Mom?” The thing is, I have and I do. She knows this. Yet she wants her image presented through her lens but my fingertips, so she’s in perpetual disagreement with me when she reads my poems and fiction. I think she’ll love the nonfiction book, because I write of her as a challenging person to have been raised by but also I respect and love her for her sacrifices and the unfazed, unknowable love a mother has for her child. So there’s a deep affection and fondness behind what I write when I write her. Because it’s mutual, that love and how unpredictably it expresses itself. As for my husband, he reads everything I write, usually by force. He dislikes half, but I don’t write for him. He knows this. Sometimes he’ll tell me, after reading a story or a poem, that he didn’t really say something a certain way, or I presented an incorrect tone when telling of one of our interactions. Other times he wakes me up to say, “It was beautiful, baby. I loved it.”
Point is it’s all a gamble. But to know where you stand with your work and those it represents, you have to be honest. Nothing matters more beyond this.
Damon Ferrell Marbut is a novelist and poet living in New Orleans, Louisiana. He is author of the acclaimed coming-of-age novel, Awake in the Mad World and the collection of poems, Little Human Accidents released through Bareback Press in Canada. Connect with him at www.damonferrellmarbut.com and http://www.facebook.com/DamonFMarbut