I was estatic. Ifelt like I had just won the lottery. I was jumping up and down, gawking at an e-mail announcing I had received an honorable mention in Women on Writing’s summer flash fiction contest. I told my husband, my best friend and my two-month-old son. Then I paused. Should I call my parents?
Most people would say “Of course, call your parents!” But let’s just say that my family is – er— complicated. Whether or not to call them and let them read the story deserved at least a bit of consideration. My story was about a tender moment between a daughter and her dad, and there is almost no mention of a mom. Little did I know that this fact would become a pertinent issue to my mom.
Since I was high off the news of my award, I went ahead and called my parents. They were excited, in their own way (I think I interrupted their British soap operas on PBS). I told them I would e-mail the story to them that night.
Lo and behold, the next day my mom called. I had a sixth sense that we were going to talk about my writing. And we did. The conversation went something like this:
Mom: Hi. Well, I read your story.
Me: Great, what did you think?
Mom: Oh, it was good. You always have had good relationship with your dad . . .
Me: (I knew where this conversation was going.) Well, it wasn’t actually something that happened between dad and I. I made it up.
Mom: Oh, I know, I write sometimes, too. But we always pull from our experiences when we write. . .
Me: When I was writing it, I was actually using other peoples’ parents as my muse. It’s called fiction, mom, it’s not real.
Mom: Well, maybe next time you can write something nice about me and enter it in a contest.
Me: (Sigh) Yes, maybe next time. . .
(Thinking to myself: Yeah, just wait for my memoir, ma, you’ll definitely make it in to that piece of work.)
Obviously, there are tons and tons of issues behind this little conversation between my mom and I. (What mother/daughter relationship is simple?) But has anyone else handed over their writing to someone else, just to be completely misunderstood?
Two big questions loomed up in my mind as I sat considering this conversation with my mother. First, is it normal for the people in writers’ lives to be a little bit nervous? Are there writers out there who have started family feuds because of something written in a piece of fiction that struck too close to home? Second, how do we write about the nitty-gritty in our lives while protecting, or at least not angering, those closest to us?
I think I will be nervous if my daughter (now two-years-old) becomes a writer, especially a reflective, introspective writer like me. My writing does draw from my life, but the fun part is putting a new spin on a person or situation to make it portray the same theme in a new light. I think this is also a good way to protect real people from resembling my characters. Let’s pretend I have a stuffy old aunt from San Francisco who calls me to gossip about her the people at her bingo club. If I need this aunt’s character as part of my story, I could turn her into a young, interior decorator who gossips about her neighbors. The essence of the character is the same, but her identity is disguised.
I decided I am not going to censor myself as I write to alleviate these concerns. The interactions I have with people in my life will add vigor and believability to the characters I create in my stories. So much good material, no matter how much I need to disguise it, cannot go to waste.
-Susan L. Eberling