Wednesday, September 21, 2011

It Ain't Me, Babe

by Jess Riley

Last night I found myself sucked down the Netflix rabbit hole (what to stream, what to stream) when I stumbled across a documentary about zombie movies.

Hey, I like zombie movies. I liked Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Why not?

It was a fun little diversion, and one of the interviewees said something we’ve heard before: that any artist—director, writer, illustrator, etc—pulls from their real life when creating their art. It’s practically unavoidable.

Well, of course, I thought. We filter everything through our own very personal Viewmasters. But it made me a little nervous about my work in progress, which explores the meaning of family. For the sake of authenticity (and because my family includes some of the most quirky, brilliant, hilarious people I know), I drew somewhat from my own family experiences. My husband is one of my early readers because I respect his opinion and he often has great suggestions. Two weeks ago, while reading a chapter about my protagonist’s marriage, he said to me, “This is kind of hard to read!”


I should point out that this novel is NOT about my marriage or my husband, but in my effort to humanize my characters and capture some of the complexities of being married, maybe I’d cut a little too deeply, drawn a little too heavily from real life.

In one of my favorite books on writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says that if you’re going to write about someone you know—say, an ex-boyfriend—just give him a small penis, because then “he’ll never come forward.”

I love that line, and she goes on to make some great points about writing about people you know. You don’t want to libel anyone, and you know in your heart what will cause your loved ones to carve you from the tribe should you publicly share it—but sometimes a snippet of dialogue or an anecdote is just so perfect you are dying to use it. And this is where common sense and good judgment come in.

We all have demons to purge, and if we’re writing about something that hits close to home, it’s hard not to try and exorcise them in chapter fifteen. Sometimes it happens without your even realizing it.

So how do you handle it when you discover halfway through your manuscript that your villain looks and sounds an awful lot like your Aunt Vera, an Oxycontin-addicted kleptomaniac? How much do you base your characters on real people?

(Mom, if you're reading this, I did NOT kill you off. The mother of my main character is NOT you. Love you!)


Jess Riley is the author of Driving Sideways, the characters of which are not at all based on anyone she knows in real life. Honest.


  1. Not sure there's a good answer for this. My first novel was based on the fact that my sister ran away from home when she was 17 and never spoke to our family again (well, until recently). A 31 year absence. When I wrote PRECIOUS *everyone* (even the lawyer at RH!) thought it was secretly "truth," to which I said: I have so very few recollections of my sister--I was a little girl when she left--so how could it possibly be truth? I wrote from silences surrounding her leaving, and from blank spaces. In other words, I made a hell of a lot of crap up! But regardless, it did, as you say, cut too close. Many, including my mother, were upset.

    Now I'm actually writing non-fiction, and I'm sure that will cut even closer, as there's no place to hide, cover, amend, etc. Did I want to write non-fiction? Dish on my family? Hell, no. But I was driven to this state because of recent events (dad's drowning, my sister's recent re-entry into our lives), and 'truth' was the only thing that made sense in telling this particular story.

    You know what? For as hard as it can be, and as close to the bone as it can cut (and we cut ourselves most of all, don't we?), I think you need to tell the stories you tell, you need to go to those places that sometimes make you (and others) uncomfortable. And people will always 'see' what they want to...I've had people SWEAR that I just wrote about 'so-and-so' when that 'so-and-so' isn't even someone I think about at all. People also want to see themselves there, in a work, if they know you. There is that weird side of it, too. On some level, I think writers can't get so bogged down in 'what will so-and-so think' that they lose their vision, their clarity in the moment, their voice. Then we'd just shut up and be quiet, like most people, about the things that bother us, or move us, or drive us nuts. And then the world would truly go to hell. ;)

    And it comes down, for me, to intention: I'm not trying to hurt anyone I love or know when I write. I'm just trying to tell the story I need to tell. Writing gives me a way to make meaning.

    If people get their feelings hurt, well, I hate to say it, but maybe it has more to do with them, than you, or the story.

    Boy that was a long response. Sorry. You caught me thinking about this *exact* same thing. In fact I took a break from the page for a moment and came here, just because it got a *little* too painful to be in the land of truth!

    Good luck!!! xo S

  2. Sandra, this was such an amazing, thoughtful comment--I loved what you had to say! Thank you. You're soooo right about writing "your truth," and about how people DO want to see themselves in the work (but only in a good light) ;)

    What you said about intention is really getting to the bottom of things. Too, too true!

  3. Great post, great comments! Reminds me of this t-shirt:

  4. Jess, it is always such a joy to read anything you write! There is always something to make me laugh and something to think about. Can't wait to read your next books!!

  5. I think our real life always seeps into our fiction. After all, we have to write based on what we take out of life, what we experience.

    That having been said, I once walked into a book club meeting for my second novel, and one woman--who knew my mother-- was so irate about the mother character. She kept announcing: Brenda's mother isn't like this at all!! So, I would laugh and explain (over and over and OVER) that the book was fiction, but sometimes you just can't win!

  6. I like this post a lot, Jess and also what you wrote Sandra. I find people always think they are the wrong person in my books. Or they think they told me something about themselves I honestly didn't know. Recently friend A told Friend b that she had told me a story I used in Momfriends, but it was really Friend B and I came clean to both of them.

    I try never to write anything that is directly true and that would hurt someone. I only verbatim steal things that are funny or that I wish I had thought of myself.

    Still I'm sure I have and may hurt people with things I have written. I guess there are two sides to everything and what I write is just my creatively embellished side of things.

    The only real solution is to always wear the shirt that devra posted. That is definitely going on my birthday list.

  7. I love that shirt! It's a toss-up between that one and "Ask me about my chapbook" or "Best of luck submitting your work elsewhere."