It isn’t all about you–Writing about people you know

Don’t annoy the writer, they might put you in a book and kill you — Anonymous

I worry about who might read my book.  I’m not talking about the generic, nameless reader.  I care about them.  Care and worry are two different animals.

I worry about  the person who has known me at some point in my life, reads my book and assumes that a character is based on them.  After all, I live in an area with one of the highest concentration of lawyers per capita in the U.S.

So, if you read a story that sounds familiar, I make these disclaimers assurances.

Mom. It isn’t you.  Same goes for my mother-in-law, my husband and my son.  The territory is rich, but dangerous.  Please be assured that I’m writing about someone else’s mother, husband or son.

My dear siblings.  It isn’t you either. So please don’t take me off your Christmas list.  I envision what other people’s dysfunctional families feel like, and write about them.

My former bosses.  It’s not any of you.  I respect you all too much and might need good references in the future.

Colleagues and acquaintances.  You’re up for grabs.  But I can assure you that it’s not you I’m writing about, but that other dude that’s such a pain in the ass.  You know who I’m talking about.

My friends.  You are safe.  Most of my stories are about friendships because the ones that I have sustain me. You have  zesty lives and multifaceted characters.  Readers would love you just as much as I do.  But your stories are not mine to tell.

Truthfully, you are all safe, because my characters are me.  Especially the really unlikable ones.  The ones who do things that I never would. That’s part of the appeal of writing–to embrace viewpoints, personalities and value systems that are antithetical to my own.  I have always been this way.  My Barbies had very rich inner lives.  That’s why I still have them, although I don’t line them up and have them act out scenes from my book before I write them.  Not that I’ll admit to.

Which means it is all about me, which I think most writers believe anyhow.  We have to believe we are inherently interesting or we couldn’t expect people to shuffle through a couple hundred pages of our innermost thoughts.

Even if you piss me off, you’re still safe.  People generally don’t die in my stories.  But I could change that at any time, so it’s best not to test me.

Words by J. B. Everett

Photograph by Adam Wyles

4 comments on “It isn’t all about you–Writing about people you know

  1. Lara Britt says:

    Thank you for addressing this. I think it touches on something every writer can relate to. I would add that it is even about me when I’m writing a memoir. My memory, my experinces, my take on the world. I would hope the readers make that leap along with me.

  2. elissa field says:

    I like this, Jeannine — so witty and such a fun perspective on that writing crisis, of wondering what the people who know you would think. I experienced that fear when the one, first story I had published and available for viewing by all online turned out to be one I was positive everyone would take as true — of me, of my family, etc. Like you, I don’t aim to write the stories of those around me, but so many crises fit certain patterns that it’s easy to look back at anything we’ve written and say, “Wait, that sounds a little like so-and-so’s life…” I especially love your line, My Barbies had rich inner lives. That’s great!

    • Thanks Elissa. It’s one of the hazards of the job. If we write well, readers personally connect with stories. As for my dolls, our first instincts about what we want to be when we grow up are often forgotten as childish whims, but they tell a great deal about who we are and what drives us. The fact that my Barbies had backstory wasn’t random. Just eccentric.

  3. […] lines that I refuse to cross.  I save the stories on the other side of that line for my fiction, when I can change the names of the people involved and claim I made it all up. It’s what writers […]

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