We all have our An Inconvenient Truth moments.
Mine came while I was entertaining myself with one of Nick Hornby’s novels. Hornby is a New York Times Bestselling author. More importantly, he’s good and funny. And sometimes, painfully perceptive. Which brings me to something from his novel Juliet, Naked.
These are the insights of Tucker Crowe, a retired semi-rock star and one of the novel’s protagonists:
“The truth about autobiographical songs… was that you had to make the present become the past, somehow: you had to take a feeling or a friend or a woman and turn whatever it was into something that was over, so that you could be definitive about it.”
Tucker equates this to putting something into a glass case and then examining it until it gives up its meaning. Ouch.
While he talks about songwriting, I realized that the same is true for writing in general: just a few hours ago, I grabbed a pen and paper in the middle of a conversation, lest I forget the brilliant thing the other person said. In a way it’s a compliment (“what you said is so important, I want to write this down”) and in another way, it’s treating the other person like they’re a specimen in a laboratory.
How we writers “prey” on our environment
In the middle of a conversation or a movie or a book, I sometimes find myself thinking that this would be great “fodder” for an article. Upon reading this section from Hornby’s book, I had to admit to myself that that’s kind of predatory: I’m stalking the story like a lioness stalks her potential lunch. And I’m not the only one.
You might have heard the joke that goes somewhere along these lines: “I’m a writer. Everything you say or do can and will be used in my writing.”
Here’s the thing: it’s not a joke.
Writers use life as inspiration. And that life by necessity includes other people. At least people who get arrested can choose to not self-incriminate themselves in front of authorities. But what are our loved ones to do? Never talk to us again, lest they somehow end up in our article, our book, or screenplay, or whatever else it is we’re creating?
And what are we as writers to do? Just ignore inspiration when it strikes? No, I think the key is to use the inspiration that life and other people provide responsibly. Here’s how I’m trying to do that.
3 tips for being more mindful when it comes to turn our life experiences into writing
1. Get permission from people before writing about them
Frankly, I’m surprised by the number of people who write about their loved ones in ways that clearly identify them without first getting their consent.
Perhaps it’s because I’m very privacy-conscious and would hate for someone to write about me without my permission. Or perhaps it’s because I have a legal background. Either way, when I write about family or friends I ask for permission or change the details so much that it’s impossible to tell who I am describing.
One of my favorite muses is my husband. He randomly throws out these gems of insight that even surprise me. I then rush to catch them and keep them safe so I can later share them with my audience.
Thankfully, my husband has given me blanket permission to use what he said in my writing. From time to time, I’ve asked him to read the draft of an article, just to make sure he’s okay with it. Turns out, he’d rather give me blanket permission to write about him than read my articles.
I guess I should be offended but it does make my life easier.
Using something my parents said can entail more of a negotiation. Unlike my husband, they do read my articles without me asking them to. It once took me a while to get my mother’s permission for calling her a “badass” in one of my articles. My mother is one of the most impressive people I know and I thought the term describes her well.
Given that English is her third (?) language, she understandably had her concerns about the word “badass” (“Bad and ass, that doesn’t sound too nice?”). It took me a while to explain that “badass” was a compliment in this context. I’m glad we clarified that before the article got published. I’d rather not unintentionally insult my mother when I’m trying to compliment her.
As a writer, I try to be a steward for the stories of other people. As a steward, it’s ethically okay to tell someone’s story if I either get the person’s permission or change the details enough that it’s no longer their personal story. The exception to that is someone whose story is already publicly known. I don’t feel the need to do a séance and ask Napoleon’s consent for talking about him.
2. Decide which experiences are off-limits in your writing (particularly if they involve other people)
It also helps to have some boundaries in your writing and decide what’s off-limit when it comes to your writing. This goes against the popular advice to “bleed on the page” but it can make you more mindful. When your experiences involve other people, it can also make you more trustworthy.
Granted, not having those types of filters and boundaries can make you more popular as a writer and potentially help your readers. For instance, writer Penelope Trunk famously live-tweeted about a pregnancy loss that happened during a board meeting. Her willingness to talk about this started an important debate.
But here’s the thing: Penelope Trunk is known for not having a filter in her writing. It’s one of the reasons I follow her blog and like her writing. That doesn’t mean that it’s the right way for me (or most other writers) to approach the writing process.
While it can be helpful for the reader when we share about life experiences, some writers seem to use blogging as a substitute for a therapy session. But as T Kira Madden put it, writing isn’t therapy:
“I am not proposing that we ignore the healing benefits of creation. What I am proposing is that we get real about what it means to render an experience for the sake of art, for the sake of sharing. To craft something and chisel it until there’s room for more than catharsis.”
If we’re only after catharsis, it might be better to journal about the experience in a personal diary, not post about it publicly. In a journal, you can be unfiltered and say whatever you want. But when it comes to your public writing, I believe in boundaries.
It’s relieving to know that certain things are off-limits in my writing, that I don’t need to turn every single thing into an article.
3. Ditch the note-taking once in a while and just live
As a writer, you have probably heard the advice to take notes whenever an idea arises. Here’s what bestselling author Paulo Coelho had to say about that:
“If you want to capture ideas, you are lost. You are going to be detached from emotions and forget to live your life. You will be an observer and not a human being living his or her life. Forget taking notes. What is important remains, what is not important goes away.”
I love this advice. It reminds me of an experience I once had in The Hague, a city in The Netherlands whose population, roughly speaking, consists of half international lawyers, half international war criminals.
It was cold, grey, and stormy but my friend and I decided to go for a swim anyway since it was our last day there. And so, to the surprise and bemusement of other people at the beach, we ran into the water. A few minutes into this experience, I said to my friend: “I wish I had a camera to capture this.” He pointed to his head and said that you store the important experiences there.
He was right. It’s been over a decade and I still remember. I have stored it for that long and now I finally write about it. Screw notepads, if it’s not worth remembering, it’s not worth writing about.
When we try to capture every moment and turn it into art, we miss what’s most important: life. When we use everything people around us do as inspiration, we devalue our relationships with them. And when we have no boundaries, we become untrustworthy.
If I had to summarize this article in one sentence, here’s what I’d say: “Don’t let your writing get in the way of your life.”
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