As a fiction writer, having any sort of commitment to the truth is the furthest thing from my mind. In fact, in my stories, generally I have no regard for the inherent truth of anything – from gravity to medicine to the eternal building blocks of the universe. I am quite happy to disregard all of them. It’s kind of my thing.
As a creative non-fiction writer, I have managed to almost entirely circumvent the issue of ‘truth’ by only writing stories about myself. This probably comes from a place of utter vanity, but I prefer to think that because it is my experiences, I can therefore use myself as a protagonist and focus on my ‘voice’ as the medium for both the comedy and any meaning that manages to seep in accidentally. But even that method, as self-centred and safe as it was, ran into an issue when my story included comments made by a dear friend’s parents. I was not only publishing the story on this site, but I was also reading it at Story Club, to a room which I knew included some mutual friends. The story in question is called Animal Cruelty. At first I felt that the story, even involving someone else’s parents and house and experiences was still MY story – it happened to me, it was through the (unreliable) narration of my memory, why did I have to ask permission to use it?
But the more I thought about it, the more I felt uncomfortable with the idea of someone I care about turning on the internet with their morning cup of coffee, whistling jauntily and then reading a snarky blog post about his own family and then spilling his coffee or something. That would be devastating. Or having it get back to him through other friends. It didn’t seem polite. So, in the end I ran it past him and everything seemed dandy. Certainly I felt more confident about presenting it, and felt like maybe I was sharing a story. He might be nursing a giant grudge in secret, but on the outside, he seems fine, and I suppose that’s all we can hope for in the end.
As some of you might remember, I am trying to get a project off the ground where I travel around the world and visit all the delightful weirdos I used to play on the internet with when I was a teenager. I pitched it for last year’s SOYA, which I was a finalist in, most due to the sterling effort of everyone I know getting involved and expressing enthusiasm for the project. Anyway, I’m still working hard at getting this project off the ground, writing grant applications and the like (and I will be going for SOYA again this year, be warned, I will once again be doing my best puppy dog eyes so everyone can help me get this novel to happen). One of the few actual steps forward I have made is getting a series of flash fictions published by Seizure as part of their Alt-Txt initiative. Each of these flash fictions is a quick profile on some of the people I hope to be featuring in my book. They should be coming out in fits and bursts soon.
Anyway – after I finished my first draft of these, I realised that while I was focusing on MY interaction with these people, the things I knew about them, how I saw them, how we i-met, how we e-interacted, I discovered that some of the stories I’d touched on were definitely not mine to tell. In three noticeable pieces, they were not simply just stories I had no claim to – they were deeply personal experiences of horror and pain.
A quick disclaimer – 90% of these stories are just silly and funny, but it was the leftover 10% that I started to have issues with.
It became quickly apparent that I couldn’t post these stories on the internet – the place where these people live – without first consulting the subjects of them, and letting them read it. It was honestly a terrifying experience. Even though I was completely prepared to let them have veto on the stories for any reason whatseover, not even just if they objected to what I was saying about them, even if they just thought I was shit at sentence structure, it still highlighted the fact that I was taking liberties with someone else’s life. Taking their experiences, their entire being and then having the hide to transform it into something to read and digest. Why on earth would I be qualified to do that?
Luckily, while I was having a genuine freakout about this, I asked all the wonderful writers I know on Facebook how they dealt with this feeling of responsibility. I was quickly reassured that the only thing I could do was run it past the subjects of the piece – and that some people actually make a habit of not doing that. I also realised that a lot of people I know routinely write about incredibly tricky interactions – troublesome family interactions, ex-partners, current significant others.
It was the first time I’ve felt in a position of responsibility as a writer. As a producer or creative director of projects, sure, I’ve had huge degrees of responsibility to other people. But as a writer, writing about the things I write, the only person I had to worry about displeasing is myself, and I shed any dignity or embarrassment years ago. One of my fiction pieces, which was fairly widely circulated, including in newspapers, was about a family at a funeral. It just so happened that it was re-published shortly after my grandfathers funeral. Even though the dead person in this story was a grandma, my grandfather’s side of the family decided the story was about them, and also decided it wasn’t a flattering depiction and therefore decided to get offended. I think non-writers constantly look for themselves in the writing of people they know. And I think as writers we all know that inspiration rarely works in a A+B= C scenario. It’s quite likely there was some of that family somewhere in my fictional depiction. However – considering it was originally published a year before my grandfather’s death, I felt quite safe in ignoring this particularly brand of self-entitled butt-hurt, unless they suspected I could foretell the future and was using that ability for literary gain.
The majority of the subjects of the Alt-Txt project (People I’ve Never Met from Places That Don’t Exist) were completely fine with the stories I’d written about them. In some cases, the sensitive topic I was bringing up allowed us to have a bit of an air-clearing chat, mostly about the ‘follies of youth’. I realised that through writing about these experiences, some which I’ve held to my chest for over a decade as something unresolved, has allowed me to tick them off in a sense, to put a full-stop at the end of that particular life experience. One particular subject, whose profile included an immensely difficult time of their life, decided that I should know the details about what actually happened to them, and not just what I vaguely remembered or had perhaps heard from other sources. What became immediately obvious is that their story was not adequately being told my me, was not being given justice. They didn’t mind that I was attempting – they just wanted my attempt to have all the information that it needed to work.
My responsibility to their story quickly told me that a flash fiction was not the place to attempt to tell the entirety of it. This was something that will have to wait for the novel, I think. There was also the issue of how someone is represented by something as transient as a mico-non-fiction. Does something that happened TO them have to be included in something so small? Is it an essential part of them? All I can do is provide a snap-shot, a preview of a person in this project. Thematically for this work – internet pieces about the internet – it fits. And does shying away from something more difficult to tell mean that I am simply being a coward, that I am whitewashing their life? I’ve endeavoured to make a compromise, and will be sending the final draft later today to see what they think.
I think as a writer, I have to be aware of the increased responsibility I have in telling a story that isn’t mine, and that all I can endeavour to do is write it as well as I can, and be as transparent as possible with the people it directly affects. I think that’s what is expected of me. I think there is still danger present, but perhaps with increased risk comes an increased reward, and I might be telling stories that deserve to be told. Maybe. I miss writing about SASSY HAWKS.