If you write, whether a blog or somewhere else, you may balance blurred lines of fact and fiction. (Hopefully not at all like the song “Blurred Lines.”)
Whose story is this?
When can I tell it?
How much do I have to change for it to be mine?
Do I need permission?
First of all, this post is my story and experience with those blurred lines. At the end, you’ll find some new tips for dealing with this issue in your writing.
I got the text when I was an hour away from a remote part of West Texas, where I would be without an internet connection for five days: DON’T PUBLISH THAT POST.
I had scheduled posts on my blog for the week of vacation. I was most excited about a fictional re-telling of a dear friend’s experience after 9/11, in which we had both lost a mutual friend. I loved my piece—so much so that I emailed her ahead of time so she could read it. The post was scheduled to go up in two days.
I should have simply un-scheduled that post before I hit the dead zone. Instead I hesitated. I argued with my friend in a frenzied series of texts, growing angrier. I loved my words and felt sure she had given me permission to tell this story.
No—she never would have agreed to that.
The post gave honor and meaning to a particularly poignant moment.
No—it exploited her story. Her story.
But if the story were hers, why couldn’t I let it go?
My first writing workshop went something like this.
“No one would react that way,” said the girl with the pink hair.
The cute guy who wrote great stories spoke up. “It’s not believable.”
The writer was bound to silence during the critique of their work. A few people gave helpful feedback. The rest? Sharks who smelled blood in the water and, in a frenzy of cutting words, tore each piece to bits. Writers left with slumped shoulders, carrying a stack of manuscripts bloodied with red-penned comments.
I worked to locate some kind of poker face. This was more than simply a story. The unbelievable main character was me. Her actions were my actions. In the early days I wrote short stories that were actually my stories, ripped right from life. The critique was about my words, my craft—but it was also about me, my story.
I sat, stone-faced, as my blood clouded the water.
Ten minutes from the dead zone, I moved my 9/11 post to the draft folder.
Later, my friend and I repaired the damage and sorted out why this piece struck such a nerve with us both. What had been to me something beautiful and meaningful had for her re-awakened shame, guilt and a painful reminder of loss.
The same story, different perceptions and emotions, and a muddy sense of ownership.
The line between truth and fiction is less a line and more a mist. As creative non-fiction has flooded the market in recent years, this has become abundantly clear. Ask James Frey.
Our lives, memories, and stories overlap with other people’s in ways that cannot be easily untangled. Navigating these waters means making tough calls. Sometimes you save a friendship and lose the writing. Sometimes you get written out of a will when you write your memoir.
Fact and fiction: my story, her story, your story. Maybe there is no such thing as mine and yours–in some way these are all our stories, ownership never as simple as who pens them first. But because this is an area that can cause feuds, lawsuits, or just drama, here are a few thoughts to keep in mind when dealing with real stories.
Guidelines for Writing about Real Events
Know Your Goal and Your Limits.
Before putting pen to page or fingers to keys, decide whether you want to place the story and the writing itself above the people. Ask yourself: if I hit post and alienate X, Y, and Z, is it worth it? Maybe the art itself comes before the relationships, or maybe you want to put relationships first. Answering this question for yourself will help set parameters before you even start writing. If you want to keep relationships first, Ally Vesterfelt has a great post called How to Write Non-Fiction and Keep Your Friends.
Think of Your Audience.
This is true of all writing at all times, but you should really consider if it matters that your next-door neighbor and your child’s first-grade teacher and your great aunt and your in-laws and your spin instructor read what you’ve written. These days, it is easy to find people’s footprint online, and if you are planning to publish something publicly (whether book, article, or blog post), you should consider all the various possibilities of who might stumble upon it and what effect that might have on your personal life.
Think of the Consequences.
Some stories might have a far greater ripple effect than you might know. Could the telling get someone else in trouble with their family, spouse, or the law? Could it get you in trouble? Do you know for a fact that a rift will develop in your family through the telling of the story? As with the first two, consider the possible effects and decide if the telling is worth what might happen as a result.
Where Applicable, Ask Permission.
If your answer to the first questions is that the art and the story supersede the relationship, you might skip this one. But if you value the relationship you have with your mother, it is probably a good idea to double-check before you post a personal story that involves her. Realize that she might not give permission, and then again you’ll be faced with the choice as I was—shelve the story, or publish anyway. Some people would rather ask forgiveness than permission, but realize that if you do this, you might have already set into motion consequences that can’t be stopped by an apology. In some cases, it may be a good idea to seek legal counsel and obtain written permission if you are writing about a real person in a way that will be recognizable to the general public. Especially if what you write doesn’t paint the best picture.
Be as Open to Criticism as You Are to Praise.
As I learned in my workshops, you will not please everyone. Whether you receive constructive criticism or encounter an internet troll tossing what they see as truth bombs, there will be things you don’t want to hear. Can you handle criticism with whatever story you are telling? This will cut more deeply if the story is about you and very personal because it may be an attack on you, not your writing. The reality is that if you hit “publish,” you are opening that can of worms and it cannot be closed. Make sure you are ready to take the good with the bad. Sometimes you won’t get any reaction, and that will be painful considering your blood, sweat, tears, and how important the story is to you. Be ready for that as well.
Be Open with Your Readers about the Amount of Fiction.
Often when I’m recounting a true story, I come to a place where I have to fill in details. Some may not be the actual truth, or they may seem real enough in my memory, but be different than another person’s memory of the same event. I would say that there is no TRUE non-fiction story because they are all seen through the lens of the writer in some way, whether or not that writer attempts to stick to the truth. Recognize this and do your best to be up front about the fact that your non-fiction will have some degree of fiction mixed in. Had James Frey done a better job of this with Million Little Pieces, he might well have avoided the debacle that followed. If you’ve added a lot of your own details, be up front about it. If you’ve done your best to tell the factual story, say that too. But also maybe add a note that you might have missed something somewhere. This is a great article about when lying is okay in a memoir.
Have you struggled in your writing with fact vs fiction? With wanting to share something that might embarrass your mom? Share your stories of dealing with these blurred lines in the comments!