Careful, or You’ll End up in My Novel

That’s the message on a T-shirt I see at writers’ conferences a lot. Apparently it’s been a popular item in the Signals Catalogue for years. 

It’s interesting that most writers I’ve met who wear them say the shirt was a gift from a friend or family member. I can’t help wondering if those gift-givers weren’t expressing their own anxiety. A lot of people presume all novels are thinly disguised autobiography.

But the truth is, most fiction writers don’t like to write about real stuff. If we did, we’d be writing nonfiction, which pays better.

OK, I have to admit I’ve tried to skewer a few real people in my fiction, but it never works. The character always takes over and makes herself sympathetic, and/or entirely different from the person on whom I tried to perpetrate my literary revenge.  

That’s because novelists can’t help making things up. It’s what we do.

As John Steinbeck said— “I have tried to keep diaries, but they didn’t work out because of the necessity to be honest.”

But a lot of non-writers don’t seem to get this.

I discovered that with my very first published fiction piece—a story I wrote for the newspaper of a new high school. It was a silly story about how a football team lost when a school was divided by squabbles between the team and the pep squad. The satire was so ham-handed, I called the protagonists Joe Jock and Cherry Cheerleader.

I’d been at the school such a short time, I didn’t even know there was a cheerleader named Sherry dating/squabbling with a football player named Joe.

After my story came out, Sherry accosted me in homeroom and said—

“I hope you’re happy. Joey and me broke up.”

I sat in stunned silence. No cheerleader had ever even spoken to me—and I had no idea what she was talking about.

She went on to accuse me of listening in on her private conversations. Then, as she flounced away, she said—“Anyway, I'm nothing like the girl in that story. I am not blonde; I’d never hold a bake sale; and I don’t have freckles.”

She was accusing me of both writing about her and NOT writing about her.

Things like this have continued to happen throughout my writing career. Like the time I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in 20 years. She asked me about my writing and I sent her my latest manuscript. When she finished it, she phoned me in tears.

“You’ve written my whole life here,” she said. “I work at a place just like this. My husband left me in the same horrible way. He said the exact same things. How did you know?”

I didn’t, of course. I’d made it all up—pure fiction.

It happened again in a critique meeting this week. I read a scene that revealed the antagonist’s abusive childhood. One member said, when he finished his critique:

“You pretty much described my own childhood there.”

He wasn’t angry. As a fellow fiction writer, he was praising me for tapping into an archetypal human experience and expressing it in a way that related to his own.

In fact, nobody except Sherry the Cheerleader has ever expressed anger after “recognizing” themselves in my fiction. (And you’ll be happy to know she and Joe got back together.) Most people understand the similarities are coincidental—and they come from the Collective Unconscious that all writers tap into when we create.

But what if it’s not coincidence? What if something a friend has told you about his past wanders into your fiction? Or a character resembles someone you know?

“That awful mother is supposed to be me, is it?” says your mom, looking teary.

“Of course not,” you say. “It’s fiction.”

Although maybe, now that you think of it, the bad mom is a little like your mother when she first started getting those hot flashes…but no, Bad Mom is more like your childhood friend’s mean Aunt Harriet. Yes, definitely there’s some Harriet in there. Funny, you never thought about her when you were writing the novel, but there she is, saying those mean Aunt Harriet things.

Do you owe Aunt Harriet an apology? Should you find out if she’s still alive and ask permission to put her nasty remarks in your novel?

I don’t think so. We can’t be expected to keep our memories out of our fiction. As Isabel Allende says, “writing is a journey into memory.” What does your imagination draw on but what’s in your memory banks? 

What a fiction or poetry writer does is take tiny fragments of memory and make an original mosaic that is “the lie that tells the truth.”

But not everybody understands this. The wonderful writer Catherine Ryan Hyde has recently been attacked for “stealing the life” of an estranged relative in her new YA novel, Jumpstart the World--as well as “getting it all wrong."  Just the way I did with Cherry Cheerleader.

And I’ve been cyberstalked recently after an offhand comment on an agent’s blog about an unfortunate man who thinks a line of poetry by a famous poet “proves” said poet has participated in animal cruelty.

This guy also “proves” on his website that I am an evil person because I advise writers to “activate your inner sadist. Never let your characters get what they need. Throw as many obstacles into their path as possible. Hurt them. Maim them. Give them cruel parents and girlfriends who are preparing to kill them for alien lizard food.”

Yeah, if I was talking about doing those things to real people, I’d be pretty rotten. Especially about feeding them to alien lizards.

These two incidents have reminded me that some people really do assume every written word is intended to be a solid, concrete fact. Irony, fantasy, metaphor, hyperbole, whimsy, and humor are incomprehensible to them.

It’s not their fault, and I shouldn’t have scoffed at the unfortunate man.

Instead I should have directed him to the works of the brain-chemistry pioneer Dr. Temple Grandin, who explains to the rest of us how autistic minds work, and why they are essential to our survival as a species. People with this kind of brain can’t “read” people or understand non-literal communication. They need to stay far, far away from poetry and fiction. Not that they miss it. Dr. Grandin says anything about nuances of emotion bores her silly.

So, for the people who don’t understand the nature of fiction, I’m wondering if maybe writers shouldn’t Mirandize everybody we meet. Shake hands and say—"I’m a novelist. Anything you say can be taken down and used against you in a work of fiction.”

And we should probably all stock up on those T-shirts.

What about you? Have any of you had an experience where the product of your imagination seemed to mimic real life? Did people get miffed?

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