Understand this about the writers in your life: you will appear in their work. We write about what we know. And if we know you, well, it’s fair game. Whether cloaked in fiction or outed in all your shame or glory through memoir, particulars of your relationship with your writer might eventually become a matter of public record.
Consider yourself warned.
In high school, I was required to take a speech class. This was equal parts good and bad. I loved writing speeches, but hated delivering them. Knowing fewer kids signed up for summer classes, I opted to take speech in the summer. So I was yellow, but I was smart about it.
I was an unusually private kid. The last time I had to speak in front of my peers, I cried. I worried my speeches would be terrible and I wouldn’t be able to make a good grade.
Our first “out-loud” speech was a minute-long extemporaneous talk related to a topic the teacher had written on the board. I was shaking as I walked to the front of the room, hands nervously clenching the ends of my long sleeves.
When I reached the podium, which was so tall I could only peek over the top, something clicked and in that moment, I can remember thinking, maybe for the first time, “Okay, I can do this.”
I picked “secrets.” Do you want to know mine? I could have never done it if a single one of my friends had been in class with me. It was a blessing and a curse. You don’t know loneliness until you’ve been lonely in a crowd of people, but that strange isolation also let me open up without fear of repercussions. I didn’t care what those other kids thought of me. I could say what I wanted, as badly as I wanted. I had nothing to lose. Buoyed by that realization, my speech that day was killer.
That moment taught me something about vulnerability that carried over into my life as a writer.
The embarrassment of telling personal stories in your work comes not from the fear that your readers will learn too much about you — they’re a classroom full of strangers anyway — but that your friends will.
We all have secrets. Whether we realize it or not, secrets are a currency. We trade goodwill on them. There are comments (like “You look fat in those jeans”) better left unmade. Is omission a kind of secrecy? I think so.
So when I write, I’m not worried about the response I’ll get from the readers I’ve never met. I’m worried about what the people I love will think about what I’ve exposed.
In one of the first columns I wrote for this paper, I discussed my relationship with my father. I confessed though I loved him, his late career change made me deeply unhappy and confused, and I saw it as a personal affront (newsflash, Caroline: it wasn’t).
After reading it, he told me “I had no idea you felt that way.”
Although he was surprised, he wasn’t displeased. It gave us an opportunity to talk about the things the column discussed: my feelings of rejection, how proud I was of his courage, even football.
In that regard, the exercise was positive, because it forced a sort of candor that I wouldn’t have offered otherwise. We aired our grievances; our relationship was strengthened. Take this away: honesty really is the best policy. Having a writer in your life is not all bad.
Rather, if anything, I might caution you against dumping a writer. Even if you get the car or the house, even millions, you might end up the villain in a book — and really, what’s worse?