gossip photoMy writing workshop students and I were having a lively discussion recently about the pros and cons of using real life in our work. Half of the class is trying to figure out if they want to tell their stories via memoir or novel. One woman had turned in pages for critique about her relationship with her adult daughter. It was good writing—the beginnings of something I could see going either into memoir or fiction.

One of the considerations I wanted to broach for my students was the ethics involved in using real life. Writers will inevitably involve other people in our work. But what’s right and fair when we tell “our” stories? I wanted to caution this new writer that maybe she was stepping too far over the line. (The line that like the judge said about porn no one can say where it is, but we know it when we see it.) I can’t draw the line for her. There’s not a clear-cut rule. Legally, she was probably safe. (A couple of great overviews about libel, defamation and invasion of privacy here and here.) But I felt like the family member she was writing about, with whom she already has a difficult relationship, may not enjoy seeing all that information go public. I wanted her to know that while telling the truth is an admirable goal for a writer, there might be consequences from it that she may not like.

A question writers need to ask ourselves: Is good writing worth causing a rift with loved ones?

In my first novel, Orange Mint and Honey, my main character suffers from trichotillomania (she pulls her hair). A friend of mine had shared with me that she used to pull her hair as a child. When I wanted a way to show (vs. tell) that my adult-child-of-an-alcoholic character had been scarred by her childhood, I asked my friend if I could use trich. The character wasn’t based on her and didn’t resemble her in any other way. She agreed. But of course agreeing to something in theory can be different than seeing it in print. When she read the draft she was bothered, and confessed that trichotillomania was still something she struggled with. We talked and agreed that I could keep it in the manuscript. Later, when the book was published she said when she read it she felt freed to face this issue and sought therapy. But since then, she has drifted away and I’ve always wondered if me writing about that issue was part of what changed our friendship.

I try to draw the line in my writing using the Golden Rule. If someone wrote about me in the same way, how would I feel? But even with the purest intentions there’s no guarantee that you won’t hurt someone’s feelings with your writing. That’s a risk for even the most careful writer. But at least if I do so unwittingly I can look myself in the mirror. I couldn’t if I knowingly wrote something I knew would injure someone I care about. This post on the subject by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg offers good advice on the moral and ethical concerns about writing about loved ones.

One other thing to think about: what is “the truth”? Is our version of what happened ever really the whole story? Last weekend, I saw a good play on the subject called “Other Desert Cities.” In it, the main character has written a memoir about a big family secret–of course, as the play progresses more and more secrets are revealed–and the main character finds out that what she thought was the truth about her family is only part of the story.

I would never tell someone not to write their story as truthfully as they could. However, I think writers should be aware of the consequences and considerations when they do so.

Back when I started taking classes and participating in writing groups it seemed the emphasis was on encouraging writers to be unafraid to share their stories. I wonder if in these days of “reality” tv shows and social media, we’re not a little more prone to tell more about those around us (and maybe ourselves too) than we should.

I’d love to hear from other writing instructors. Anyone else ever feel like telling students to dial it down a notch?

Writers, what do you think? What is a writer’s responsibility to the truth, to our writing and to those around us? How do you draw the line in your own work?

About Carleen Brice

Carleen Brice writes nonfiction and fiction. Her most recent books are the novels Orange Mint and Honey, which was made into a Lifetime television movie called “Sins of the Mother,” and Children of the Waters. She’s currently at work on a novel called Every Good Wish.