Could You? (Yes.) Should You? (Maybe Not.)

Sunday, February 08, 2015
A Junior Hall
Once upon a time, I wrote an essay about one of the Junior Halls. An essay that happened to be about a semi-embarrassing moment in the afore-mentioned Junior Hall’s life.

Okay, it was really embarrassing. But it was also really funny. I didn’t have any trouble selling that story. I did, however, get grief from one of my nephews who read the story.

“I can’t believe you wrote about that, Aunt Cathy! I really don't think you should've put that out there. If it were me, I’d be pretty upset.”

Er…I hadn’t given it much thought, to be honest. But I quickly called the Junior Hall in question and asked if he minded me writing about that particular embarrassing episode.

Fortunately, he laughed. But it was a writing lesson that stuck with me. I always check now, before sending a family story out into the world.

Occasionally, anthologies will require permissions for other people mentioned in a story. But most of the time, writers are left to make that judgment call on their own. The embarrassing moments, the humorous mix-ups, snafus, and silly mistakes—they make for some awfully entertaining reading. But just because it’s a great story doesn’t mean you should share it with the world.

Sometimes, if you want to keep everyone on speaking terms, a great story needs to stay at home.

And it doesn’t have to be a funny story, either.

I wrote a story once about my mother-in-law and the struggles she faced with Alzheimer’s, right before she died. It was all true, a little bit comical and a little bit sad, which isn’t an uncommon story for those who suffer with that devastating disease. In the end, it didn’t make the final cut for the anthology, and reading that rejection email, I was—for perhaps the first time ever with a rejection—very relieved.

I realized that it didn’t feel respectful to her memory, telling that story. I was glad to have the chance to take it back, and though I probably needed to write the story for me, I didn’t need to send it out into the world for others to read.

I love telling funny stories, about my family, and about me, and I really love getting a paycheck based on those stories. In fact, I wrote a story recently about a different Junior Hall and a funny (and really, really embarrassing) potty emergency. (I had quite a few stories to choose from.) So I ran it through the Nephew Test and called my son before sending it off.

“I love that story,” he said, and we both laughed ‘cause honestly, it’s hilarious. “But if you sell it, you have to take me out to lunch.”

“Done,” I said.

I mean, he’s a pretty funny kid. I’ll probably get another story out of it.

~Cathy C. Hall


Unknown said...

Cathy--If you "sell" the story but never get any money for it, perhaps you doNOT have to take him to lunch?

Sioux Roslawski said...

Sorry Cathy--The previous comment was from me, but since I was using my husband's computer, I guess it credited HIM with the comment...

Margo Dill said...

Sioux: We knew it was you because it was a brilliant comment. You are so lucky to have a good spot and someone who does something funny.

Margo Dill said...

GOOD SPORT--not good spot. :)

Angela Mackintosh said...

Cathy, I was just thinking about this topic the other day. I've been doing some research for a graphic novel--actually graphic memoir--I'm creating, so I've been reading a lot in the genre. I just ordered the NY Times Bestseller, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast. It's a humorous graphic memoir about dealing with her aging parents, but some of the comments made me take pause. Some readers said the memoir was in bad taste, lacked sympathy, that she over-shared--drawing her parents in unflattering ways--and I wondered how you gauge this when the people you are writing/drawing have passed on?

Drawing a graphic memoir can take years, so I'm thoroughly planning every aspect. I actually created a graphic story eighteen years ago and sold the piece to a magazine, but it took over a year to paint the panels, and it was only fifteen pages! So you can imagine what a full length book will take me. =/ Anyway, most of the book examines my relationship with my mother and attempts to figure out why she committed suicide when I was thirteen through letters, trips to Japan, conversations, and recollections. A similar story was done successfully in Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. But I still wonder how much I should put in and leave out. I don't think I have any family members left to offend, but I don't want to offend readers either. I think it impacts things when you're also drawing pictures of real people--you can get double the criticism! LOL

PS. Love the Junior Hall pic!

Cathy C. Hall said...

Sioux, yes, I knew that was you, too. And I never pay off my "family debts" till I have the check in hand. :-)

Margo, my kids have to be good sports--they live with a crazy writer woman. :-)

And Ang, I think a graphic memoir is a GREAT idea--but I can definitely see your point. I wonder if before you draw anything, you could write up an outline with the gist of events you want to cover, maybe run it by a trusted friend? Someone who'll tell you the honest truth, because yes, sometimes it's hard to see all the nuances when we're so close to a subject.

And drawing pictures of REAL people? Perhaps you'll want to publish under a pseudonym! :-)

Anonymous said...

I love this post. It 's a much-needed reminder that our words mean something and they can mean different things to different people. I've read interviews with authors who say we must write the story and not worry about hurting feelings, but I have to disagree. Maybe those writers aren't as close to their families as I am. Personally, I'd rather hold onto a story-- and my loved ones-- than risk causing heartache.

Linda O'Connell said...

I'll bet the Junior didn't even do it, probably was the white dog. Greta post, Cathy.

Anonymous said...

Family is the best fodder. :) But I agree, we have to be careful sometimes. I wonder about the authors who stress total honesty, like Anne Lamott---her opinion is that if people don't like what she writes about them, they should have behaved better. I would love to tap into that kind of honesty with my writing, but I'm too concerned with hurting feelings, or sharing stuff that I might regret sharing later. It may affect my writing in some ways, but I'd rather be safe than sorry.

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