It’s not you, it’s me… and my imagination.

Susan Lanigan posted a link to this on the ol’ Twitter this week, citing it as a ‘what not to do’ for writers. Don’t take your secrets, especially the secrets you shared with one other person, and put them out there for the world to see.

There’s a lot to be said for this, and it’s something I talk about when, during author visits, people ask me whether my books are based on “real life”, on “people I know”, on “things that really happened”. It’s not a yes-or-no question, and I don’t think it is for many writers – those that immediately answer “yes” (Louise Rennison and Derek Landy are two who come to mind) will still point to things that have been changed, those that answer “no” are being overly literal – the events in the book did not exactly happen in the way they are described on the page.

But. We write about our obsessions, our passions, things that matter to us. We observe people, and steal the best bits, and reshape it all into something different. We, say, listen to a story a friend tells us and note something about it – a detail, a line, a physical response, an unexpected emotional reaction – and we store it away for future use. But we do not, generally, sit there and type up everything that our friend is saying and add a couple of adjectives and send it off to a publisher. For starters, it’d be fairly boring – just because something “really happened that way” doesn’t mean it will work well on the page. And it’s a violation of trust.

At the same time, I am sceptical of the idea that the author of that letter knows just what’s in the book, or how to interpret it. She hasn’t read it. She may have been alerted to some of the details by someone else, but she doesn’t give specifics. Now, fair enough if the book is being marketed as some kind of tell-all memoir, but we don’t know whether it’s presented as fact or fiction. The latter seems far more likely.

The thing about fiction is that people who know the author tend to forget that such a thing as imagination exists. Unless they are writers themselves, and sometimes even then, they read a book and look for some kind of code to tell them who’s “really” who. This is partially encouraged by media coverage, of course, which tends to ask similar questions of certain kinds of authors – what about the book is “you”? Usually something. You can’t live inside another world for the length of time it takes to write a novel without there being something that reflects your life and the things that roll around in your brain late at night – but that doesn’t necessarily make it autobiographical, either.

A woman who used to be in a relationship with your husband, writing about a woman who used to be in a relationship with someone now married, is not necessarily writing about your husband. Especially if it’s fiction. She is just as likely to be writing about what it is like to be a woman in that situation, never mind who the guy is, changing details more often than not – because so much of real life just does not work on the page – and adding and inventing new ones to suit her purpose. Someone might squint at those new details and see patterns, echoes of something “in real life”, but they’re just as likely to be generic tropes with a new twist. Love and heartbreak are not that original. Really and truly, they’re not. So many of the clichés in writing are about love and love-gone-wrong. And so much of the great writing is about capturing love and love-gone-wrong in a new and astonishing way.

There are three sides to every story, as the saying goes, and even when people do write something based on “real life”, they’re writing their version of it, their interpretation of it. Very often the way we are seen by others is not how we see ourselves. I am sceptical of this woman’s side of the story. There is something a little smug about it, a little presumptuous, a little self-righteous. She strikes me as someone who is likely to read the book, if she ever does, if it is fiction, with an eye wide open for any reference to characters she presumes are based on her, never stopping to think what if it just works better for the story if this character is [insert adjective of your choice here]? Writers borrow and steal from real life. Of course they do. But they also transform, and embellish, and develop, and refine.

In short – they’re probably not writing about you.

At least, not in the parts where you think they are… 😉

P.S. In the interest of magpie writerliness, the A letter to… series may be useful as a starting point for a story, should you be seeking inspiration.

P.P.S. All that being said, there are crazy people who use written work in some very twisted ways. But when that’s someone’s main motivation, more often than not, it’s bad writing, never mind any ethical or moral questions.

About clairehennessy

Writer (mostly YA fiction), creative writing teacher, tea drinker, book junkie. View all posts by clairehennessy

4 responses to “It’s not you, it’s me… and my imagination.

  • Susan

    Thanks for the response, Claire. Yes, I inferred memoir from the article rather than fiction. If it were fiction – and properly so, not just cinema verite with the names changed – then there is wit involved in the transformation and the alchemy is different.

    • clairehennessy

      I guessed that, yes – and I completely see your point if that’s the case, and if it’s something that by looking at it, she knows that it’s about her husband. For me it brought up a lot of thoughts about how people respond to fiction by those they know, sometimes in a very self-absorbed and inaccurate way – the ‘it’s all about me!’ when a character has the vaguest similarities to them.

  • laurajanecassidy

    Fascinating to read your thoughts on this Claire. I find it interesting that people are wary, even terrified of being ‘put’ in books. I like what you say about imagination, often one of my characters will be inspired in part by someone, but by the time I’m finished a book they will have morphed into entirely their own person. I think it’s insulting to writers when people say ‘oh she’s obviously writing about her ex there’, when a writers job is basically to make things up, and they spend hours and hours building characters. Very interesting topic!

    • clairehennessy

      At family events I am sometimes told ‘now, don’t go putting this in one of your books!’ Very strange.

      >> often one of my characters will be inspired in part by someone, but by the time I’m finished a book they will have morphed into entirely their own person. << Absolutely! Because you *can't* keep having them be like the real person, anyway, the second you start putting stuff on the page you're selecting certain details and changing others so that it fits the story, and the things that are happening to them shape who they are. There's an art to it, and hard work, and… well, yeah. Could go on for hours about the way in which so many people underestimate the effort that goes into writing! 😉

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