There was a lot of discussion at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop (AWW) about the chestnut, “write what you know.” Zakes Mda gave a lovely keynote speech, and talked about the idea of writing what you don’t know, or maybe more accurately, writing what you want to know.

I think that the idea of writing what you know is too often taken too literally. People write fiction which is autobiography, veiled by the sheerest curtain: so that setting, plot, characters, dialogue, and just about everything else is (to borrow a phrase from the ubiquitous Law and Order TV shows) “ripped from the headlines” of their lives. When I talk to other writers about this, the more savvy people agree that yes, it behooves a writer to write from a basis of emotional or psychological truth. The idea of authenticity is everywhere these days, and the word is overused, but it fits here, I think. However, having some core of authenticity does not necessarily mean transposing your real life to fiction. No matter how interesting the “headlines” of someone’s life might be, the world and the world of words would be better if people would use more imagination.

So I’ve been thinking about various angles on this problem, both in fiction and nonfiction.

I attended a memoir workshop last week at the AWW. I submitted a piece of nonfiction, more of a personal essay than memoir. In the piece, there is a person whose name I did not use; let’s call this person the villain of my story. Part of the reason I chose not to use the villain’s name had to do with protecting myself. But the story I told is mine, and the reason I decided to tell it has mainly to do with not hiding secrets.

As I understand it, here are my options:

1. Put the essay or whatever it is aside, congratulate myself for the courage and catharsis of writing it, and get back to work on my novel.
2. Change names and call it nonfiction.
3. Change names and call it fiction. (This has zero appeal. See above about not hiding secrets.)
4. Name the person and open myself to unknown and unpleasant reactions.

I get mad thinking about how, in order to tell my story, to be free enough to write it and safe enough to publish it, I have to not tell it all. Or more accurately, I get mad that I can’t name a real villain.

So whose story is this? If I experienced it, do I own it? Is it mine? If it’s mine, why can’t I tell everything? Who do these facts belong to, if not me?

Who owns the truth?

8 thoughts on “Write what you know…but not everything you know…

  1. I think it’s powerful to name it even if you have to change names. You own your truth, which is ultimately what people want to read about in your essay. So for a reader, I don’t think the real villian’s name is important. I figure you write what you want, and leave the other stuff up to lawyers and editors when it comes time to publish!

    If you haven’t checked out take a look — there’s a group for memoir writers and this subject comes up a LOT.

  2. And then there’s the fiction-pretending-to-be-memoir genre that had so many enthralled…

    J.T. LeRoy, RIP.

    “So what? It was a good story. Light a candle…”

    1. I think you mean James Frey, right? I think the JT Leroy stuff was supposed to be fiction. But of course the ultimate fiction was the author. I think my brain just folded into itself again. :)

  3. Nope – I did mean J.T. “terminator” LeRoy. Meant it as in “s/he” (Savvanah Knopp) portrayed the fictional author who was really SK’s sister-in-law, and pretended that the “fiction” was really memoir.

    Ah, yes. A good story indeed!

    As for Frey, I think that was so overblown. (i.e., the meat (as it were–sorry vegans) of the story was all true–the exagerated part (his police record) wasn’t even relevant to the story… And/but/so b/c he fictionalized one part, it all became a joke. Which means a lot of people will never read the book. And that’s too bad b/c there is a lot of great non-fiction (mainly, dealing w/alcoholism) in the book.

    Better light another candle…

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