The names have been changed to protect the innocent

I’m preparing to do public events to promote my book: a publishing party up in Evanston in a couple weeks, another down in my hometown of Naples, Florida later in the summer.  Aside from arranging locations and practicing my signature (how do people develop such nifty signatures?  Mine still looks like an exercise in cursive) I’ve also been thinking about  answers to questions writers are commonly asked.  One of the biggies being “where do you get your ideas?”  Plenty of writers have weighed in on that one, of course, and I’ll probably wind up relying on one of those soundbites.  Write what you know.  Write about your childhood, your hometown.  Populate your stories with people in your life.  Keep a notebook for observations as you go about your day.

Any of these bits of advice, though, leave unsaid a dilemma I’ve run into on a number of occasions: what do you do with a story that is deeply your own, but involves people close to you in a way that will be recognized, either just by them or by the public at large?

In most cases, people are going to assume that what you write is autobiographical to some extent.  My mentor Paul McComas has a story about a woman, the narrator’s sister, who has a psychotic break and winds up in a mental institution.  When he reads this story in public, people always come up to him afterwards and ask, “How is she doing now?”  The story is entirely fictional, but it is real enough to those who hear it that they assume this woman must exist, and that the narrator must be the author.

When I say “entirely fictional,” though, it’s rarely that cut and dry.  Most stories have at their heart an emotional truth that is the author’s, even if the events they spin around it never actually happened.  This beating heart is vital to connecting with the reader.  In my own book Haunted, Tara is a young woman whose father committed suicide when she was a child.  I am not Tara, and my own father is not her father.  However, the themes of abandonment and forgiveness are mine, even if the particulars are not.

Sometimes, however, it can be hard for a writer to separate that emotional truth from the realities that created it.  This isn’t always a bad thing.  Alice Sebold was able to write an incredible account of a girl’s rape and murder in The Lovely Bones in large part due to her own brutal physical and sexual assault.  Things get tricky, though, when exposing the realities will cause trouble and pain to others.   I have a number of stories that arose directly from my own experience.  My short story Ebb and Flow is about a young woman who works at a funeral home and confront the death of a baby when she herself is pregnant.  The incidents are fictionalized in that they didn’t happen in exactly the way they’re portrayed, but I did work in a funeral home, there was a baby that died while I was there (several, actually) and I was pregnant with my daughter at the time.   The story is more autobiographical than not, even thought the names have been changed to protect the innocent.  I have no problem publishing this story.

I have a number of other stories, however, that I have more of a problem with.  The dilemma comes from the fact that these are my experiences, so I feel I have a right to use them and share them, yet they cast people in my life in an unfavorable light, and going public with these stories will embarrass or hurt or anger them, even if I’m successful in obscuring their identities from others.  Sometimes I feel that I should serve Truth, and damn the consequences.  That withholding these stories is tantamount to allowing myself to be shamed into silence.  At other times I feel that the pain that sharing these truths would cause is needless, and that if it is in my power to exact vengeance or practice mercy, my choice should be mercy.

It’s a tough call.

How about you folks out there?  Have you ever been in this situation?  Did you choose Truth or mercy?  Or did you take a middle road?

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4 thoughts on “The names have been changed to protect the innocent

  1. A lovely post. Enjoyed it very much. Most famous writers famously stepped all over people’s feelings, including those close to them. But, on the other hand, they immortalized people who might otherwise have been forgotten.

  2. I think your past – all the stories that ever happened to you – belong to you, and you can safely own them. Use them shamelessly, and then claim publicly that they are entirely fictional with no resemblance to persons living or dead!

    (I read a funny anecdote from a writer who advocated inserting deeply shameful details into stories that were secretly about past lovers (either true shames or false ones, no matter) – that way, if the lover wanted to come forward and complain about their treatment, they’d have to tarnish their own reputation to do it! Maybe it was Harlan Ellison… it seems like his kind of policy. Anyway, a strategy for those with whom one is willing to burn bridges without regret, for sure.)

  3. We walk a fine line as writers between disclosing too much and withholding truth. For me, I cringe when I think of the readers who might recognize themselves in my work, but those whispers of authenticity compel readers to keep turning the pages….

  4. I really don’t know the answer from this one… I have some things in my life that I would like to write about, but then again… I purposefully have not shared even my blog address with some people in my family just simply to keep them from judging the things that I say or do. How do you help people and write the truest feelings of how you felt in a situation. I feel it’s like a teeter totter, you could get understanding to some degree of how you felt in a particular moment and time of your life and/or you can create a landslide of broken relationships and cause bitterness to those that simply will not ever understand you. Perhaps, as the Bible says it, you allow love to cover a multitude of sins. Or wait until they’re dead and gone before you reveal the true feelings… Ugh… so hard. I wish I knew the answer! ~The Ministry Mama

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