The title of this post is from a t-shirt I should probably own. I’m not really planning on being a novelist, my goals are much more navel-gazey than that, but that might make it even more important to consider. If I put you in a novel, I can add the All Persons Fictitious disclaimer:
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
If you are an essayist, as I seem to have become, its more difficult to disguise who people are. If you are disguising them too well, then you are a novelist.
I wrote an essay once about the hardships of coming from New England and Southern US roots, languagewise. It was a light-hearted essay, but my mother made sure to say something like, “I guess you use your family like comedians do,” meaning I will say whatever about whomever to get a laugh.
As an artist (I hate calling myself that, but I use the term to mean people who create stuff like books, movies, songs, performance art, what have you), I don’t want to sacrifice everyone I know at the altar of the personal essay or memoir. However, as a writer, my job is to keenly observe the life around me and write it down using my own lens of focus. I can soften the lens, sure, but that’s not how I see things. I’m pretty cynical and sarcastic.
This all started to coagulate in my head after writing my post about my bad prom. If you knew me at the time, and you knew the people involved in that story, you didn’t have a hard time recognizing them. There was commentary on the post and it occurred to me that the people involved might actually read it.
It took me a while to realize that for a couple reasons. I don’t think anybody ever reads my blog. According to my stats, I consistentlyget 2 hits a day, mostly from tag surfers. I don’t have a loyal reading. I’m writing a blog to amuse myself and I forget that other people are watching. It also occurred to me that nobody would even remember most of the things I write about. Or care.
I read an essay from Cynthia Kaplan’s book Why I’m Like This where she talks about her former therapist who, by the entire account, was a sloppy, unethical, hot mess of a woman, filmed in glorious unflattering hi-def by the author. Will that therapist ever read the book and recognize herself? What will she think?
I once found something that someone had written about me in a place I’m sure the person never thought I would see. It was rather unkind. I felt badly about it for a while, never said anything to the writer. But I think about that when I think about writing my experiences that include other people’s experiences.
I have hit a snag in my grand plan to be an essayist. I don’t know if I’m brave enough to write much about other people. I know there are all sorts of commentaries about this from the navel-gazing greats like Lee Gutkind, and the fallout of Augusten Borough’s novel Running with Scissors had plenty to teach us about putting other people in your books, warts and all.
I will continue to think about this, I’m sure.