“Don’t ask permission, just ask forgiveness.” –Drake
Uncomfortable subject matter usually makes for the best conversations and the best written works because if it’s uncomfortable to read or listen to, it’s usually something that needs to be said. When you come across these works, it usually involves other people, it usually paints them in a flawed light, and it usually exposes what you really think about someone.
As a reader, it may seem as if you’re intruding on the deep, dark secrets of the author. But as a writer, you have to decide if it’s important to push those secrets under the rug for fear of exposing a loved one, or to lay them out on the table for the sake of your art.
In the same breath certainly no topic is off limits. Whether that topic is a spouse, a family member, a close friend, etc. etc. Whether or not those people positively or negatively reinforced your life doesn’t matter. If we couldn’t write about these people’s existence in relation to us, what is the point?
Although writing about them may pour salt into a wound, you, as the author, must decide whether or not you care about the feelings of the nameless, and if their permission is a deciding factor in whether or not you write candidly about their life.
Mostly everything I’ve written is loosely based on family matters; never once did I stop to think if they would care to have a light shone on them during times where—if I’m being honest—they’d rather not talk about. Let alone have people read about. To convince myself that what I was doing was ok (because it’s normal to question it) I went about doing so in one or two ways:
1. Did the actions of the person I’m choosing to write about affect my life in any way?
2. I figure if it happened to me than that person doesn’t have a right to censor me because half of our truth is mine to tell anyways.
If my answers to these concepts were yes, I would write my ass off with no remorse. I would tell everything without thinking twice about it.
But then last fall rolled around and I wrote an eleven-page essay about a lifelong, tumultuous relationship with a particular family member which was honest and gut clenching and would probably be very embarrassing if I ever had the balls to let that person read it. But most of all, this essay was true and felt good to write, and despite knowing that my subject would reluctantly accept my truth, I had to finish it for my own sanity. Sometimes, what is probably defamation of character to one is an emotional brick removed to another.
In no way am I saying you have to be granted clearance to write about someone you know. But if you feel as if you should warn them—do it. If you feel that you should ask—do it. Don’t be like me. Even though that wasn’t the first time I’ve written about someone I love or loathe, it was the first time something I wrote solely about a close subject who’s identity could easily be exposed, was published. And it will never go away. It’s out there for everyone to judge. And to this day, I still haven’t told them about it.
Dealing with the repercussions of writing about another person brings in a lot of questions like: Did I have the right to do so? Was my story worth the trouble? Will writing about them affect the future with this person even more?
Here’s a lesson I’ve learned: writing about other people doesn’t really affect them unless they consider it to be bad (bad could mean an overwhelming amount of things); but what it usually means is uncomfortable, embarrassing, and more often than not, true. It means they didn’t want people to know that you wrote something jarring about them, that you thought something hurtful about them. There’s something about telling someone else’s personal business that makes them want to shrivel up and hide.
Another lesson I’ve learned is that when you write about great memories with a person, they tend to feel honored. But be weary of those who want you to write about them only in a certain way— in a certain light that makes them a martyr despite how life discredits this truth. “Calculated” and “reality” do not share the same definition just as “permission” and “legitimacy” does not live in sync. As a writer, you have to choose the direction you want to take and be ok with your choice.
I never informed the person that I wrote about in the essay I mentioned earlier. Let alone inform them that it’s published and floating around in the world. The repercussions in the way I chose to go about this were an inner conflict more than a confrontational one. But repercussions are always inner warfare.
After the damage was done, I was confused because I no longer felt the same way I felt about the person as I did when the essay was written—despite the fact I did feel every word that was written during that time. And I used this as an excuse to not do anything about it. I thought, do I have to tell them? Because we’re in a great space now. It’s too late to give such a little explanation.
The main advice I can give when writing about people who may not be ok with being written about is: 1. Take into consideration who and what you are protecting by not writing. 2. Consider what you are gaining by writing.
Whether you choose to tell these characters fictionally, metaphorically, or realistically is all up to you. But you do have the right to do so. There’s no right or wrong time to do it. There’s only accepting that you have to.
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better” – Anne Lamott