Whether you’re a poet or problogger, you will, at times, have an instinct to write autobiographically.
As writers, we regularly follow the common piece of writing advice, to ‘write about what you know’. It’s in our nature to draw on personal experience and, in one way or another, write about our lives.
But of course, it’s almost impossible to write about our lives on a regular basis or in any depth without referring to the people around us – our friends and family.
And this can sometimes lead to problems.
You novelists and scriptwriters will understand the difficult decisions you have to make when a character starts to resemble someone you know.
Do you plough on regardless or do you stop and think about whether what you’re writing will have any repercussions in real life?
And what about you bloggers and journalists? What you write is effectively a permanent archive of material that can be accessed at any time by pretty much anyone. That’s a lot of responsibility.
Do you stick with a good story or article no matter what, or do you run it past the people it might affect to make sure that your work won’t bring heartache later on?
Writing about your life can be a tricky business, but there are a few things you can do to make sure you don’t get yourself in an emotional tangle.
They can handle the truth
Once you’ve made the decision to write about your life in a way that might affect someone you know, be open and honest about it. More importantly, ask permission.
There’s no harm in telling that person that you’re writing about them, or that you’ve been inspired by something they’ve said or done. Most people will take it as a compliment and maybe even help you out with any research that you might need to do.
But it’s vital that you’re up front with them from the get-go. Otherwise, what you write may just cause upset later on. And by that time, it’ll be too late to do anything about it.
Be inspired don’t imitate
Another alternative is to simply use a snapshot of a person or event.
You don’t always need to go the whole hog and base an entire character on one person, or relay exact events that reflect their life and actions.
When I began writing my novel, I had no intention of using any part of my life as inspiration. But inevitably, it happened.
My lead character’s father shares many similarities with my own father, including his job, dialect and some of the phrases he uses. But he’s also a borderline alcoholic who may or may not have had an affair with his daughter-in-law’s mother.*
My character, that is. Not my Dad.
The point is, I’m never going to write a story, poem or blog article based entirely on someone I know personally. But they can still inspire me, and I can use that inspiration in a way that won’t compromise the relationship.
Here are some practical examples for when you really have to write about a friend or family member, but need to protect their anonymity:
- If you’re writing fiction, give someone a different name. Make one up. It’s obvious, I know, but worth saying.
- If you’re writing fiction, give someone a different name that doesn’t sound very similar to their real name or have the same initial. Don’t laugh. It happens all the time.
- If you’re writing non-fiction, reduce the name to an initial, so Sally becomes ‘S’ and Bob becomes ‘B’.
- If you’re writing non-fiction, use a different name and include a disclaimer that indicates what you’ve done.
Put yourself in their shoes
Another way of looking at it is to try and put yourself in their shoes.
Read your work again. Would you like to have the article or story that you’re writing written about you? Would it hurt your feelings or jeopardise a relationship?
The old saying, ‘treat others how you would want to be treated yourself,’ is a pertinent message for writers.
With the power of words comes responsibility. Think about how your words might affect you if the shoe was on the other foot. I know that’s way too many shoe/foot analogies, but the point is a good one.
Do the write thing (sorry)
Finally, what I think is probably my most important piece of advice. If you think there might be any chance that what you’re writing will affect someone you care about, don’t do it.
It’s just not worth it.
The written word is our passion. For many of us, it’s our occupation too. But it will never be more important than the people we love.
When your work starts to have a negative impact on the people around you – your friends and family – it’s time to find a new subject and move on to the next idea.
* It’s less complicated than it sounds, I promise.