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Words to the Wise

Taking the Risk—Writing About Those We Know

I once heard it said that if you are not willing to take the risk of writing about those closest to you, you will never succeed as a writer. Now, that may be a little overstated, but it points to a dilemma many of us face: Some of the best material in our heads, for both fiction and nonfiction, involves family, friends, enemies and acquaintances. Yet we shy away—nay, cringe—from exploiting these riches for fear of offending someone or courting criticism.

Author Jane Christmas has overcome any fear she might have felt. In her book Incontinent on the Continent: My Mother, Her Walker, and Our Grand Tour of Italy, Christmas recounts in unflinching detail her five-week car trip in Italy with her mother. It was not pretty, and if reviews on Amazon are any indication, not every reader took kindly to her honesty. But the book has been a hit—and I understand why: it's deeply real, and many of us can relate.

Anne Lamott would certainly approve. In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Lamott exhorts writers to write from their memories. "Use these memories," she says. "They are yours." She is mindful, of course, of defamation, but it's not a problem. For fiction, her answer is to change everything that might point to a person specifically. "Leave out his kleptomaniac leanings. Leave out the kind of car he really drove and the fact that he hated smokers so much that he planted a tiny tree in the ashtray." Using your memories is about becoming conscious, about writing from a place of insight and simplicity and real caring about the truth. "If something inside you is real," Lamott says, "we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal.... Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you're a writer, you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act—truth is always subversive."

Reference:

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Anchor Books, 1995

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