The other day, I got a call from a relative who was very upset. Based on my interest in and amusement over a personal anecdote they’d recently shared, this person decided that I was “writing a book” about them. They went on to threaten me in such elaborate and specific ways that, had they been a stranger, I might have been worried. As it turns out, I’m not concerned. Why? Because of this:
Dear family, I’m not f*&king writing about you.
Seriously, you guys. I’m not.
It’s common for family members to worry that their writing kin are mining domestic secrets and personalities for material to exploit. Two reasons come immediately to mind:
There’s always that jerk in the family who, after a family quarrel shouts, “I’m going to write a memoir! Just you people wait!” Of course, then everyone’s scared that their jerk brother or aunt or whoever is going to make them look bad. And it’s true that entirely too many would-be writers think, “My family is SO CRAY-CRAY. The whole world will be lining up to read this!”
(Dear would-be writers, it’s not bloody likely.)
You might be disappointed to hear that an author is protected legally by the First Amendment when writing a memoir because they’re discussing events that happened to themselves. But if they’re scribbling random anecdotes about things that happened to siblings, parents, and other kin, they could fall into muddy legal terrain. And in either case, if it’s something that puts the subject in a criminal light, the writer could be in legal hot water. In fact, this is one of the dangers of self-publishing. A legitimate agent and publisher would recognize the legal risk. An inexperienced writer — like your jerk brother — might not. But don’t worry. Your jerk brother’s chances of getting a major publishing deal are slim to none. And getting noticed through Amazon self-publishing is just as unlikely. That’s if he ever finishes his magnum opus, of course. So, let him scribble.
(For the record, I’ve written a memoir. And none of you family lot are in it. So, just chill, okay?)
2. The Belief that Creativity Is a Soulless, Marrow-Sucking Ghoul
Another big reason family members fear they’re being “written about” is because people who aren’t writers don’t understand how creativity works. Many think writers are constantly on the prowl for “inspiration,” that everything they write comes from outside of themselves. Some even see writers as intellectual leeches that exploit any interesting event they hear about to make a buck or simply get attention.
People are afraid of being exploited and thereby exposed. I get it. But creativity doesn’t have to — and often doesn’t — work that way.
Dear family, it’s about me, not you.
I can’t say there aren’t people out there trawling their family history for material (or at least trying). However, I can speak for myself as I say that I’m inspired far more by what happens to me rather than by what happens to other people. My short stories tend to be somewhat autobiographical. In those cases, I take a true story — something that happened to me personally — and then introduce a supernatural element that, by the time I’m done, has fictionalized everything. So, if I’m a ghoul, I’m sucking my own tasty, tasty marrow.
My books are wholly made up. There’s very little of me or anyone I know in them. That’s just how it is.
I’ve only once explicitly written about something that happened to a family member, which was when I wrote that essay about my sister Danielle’s tragic accident. Not only did her tragedy and profound disability deeply affect me, I felt Danielle’s story was important to share since distracted driving is epidemic, and teens are especially susceptible to lifelong disability from traumatic brain injury. Plus, numerous people over the years have asked me how she’s doing. The essay is an effective way to convey the reality of her situation, especially since she’s unable to do it herself.
Dear family, READ WHAT I WRITE.
Had this family member read anything of mine to start with, they’d have realized that their particular life event is totally out of my wheelhouse (among other things). Of course, fear is blinding. Perhaps they would have suspected the worst no matter what they knew about my writing. Or me.
I reminded this relative that I loved them and would never do anything that might expose them to harm or ridicule, but that didn’t help. At all. It just goes to show that fear is irrational and you can’t allay anxieties once they’ve risen. This blog post is meant to be prophylactic against future questions.
I just ask that, if someone in your family is a writer, read what they’ve published before worrying that they’re mining your life for material. And if they’ve never published anything, rest assured whatever they write might not see the light of day, even if they self-publish.
Remember, it’s about them, not you.
And, Jesus, please get a grip, okay?
P.S. Dear family, I love you!