When Writing What You Know May Be Too Much Reality

By Susan Wagner

Once, in college, I wrote a short story that was published by the school’s literary journal. I was criticized for it, publicly, by a professor I didn’t even know. It was too personal, she said. It was something that should have stayed within the family.

Sue Wagner NewI was shocked by this because it was a piece of fiction. Did it have elements I related to? Of course. Like Stephen King, some things in my life just had to be written or they’d overwhelm me. But I did use the emotions I’d felt to drive me, changing the actual circumstances. This was largely to protect myself. The last thing I ever wanted was for my family to figure out what I was writing about.

The incident disturbed me greatly. I was still young and not really experienced when it came to knowing what “normal” meant. And though I loved to write, I wasn’t really used to people’s reactions to my writing. So her reaction surprised me, taking away the pride I felt at being published by a college literary journal.

Fortunately, I was compelled to continue writing. But it did damper me. I was forced to rethink how to use what I knew to be true in a way that was both fictional and real. Not an easy task for someone not yet twenty-year old.

I have since written personal essays, stories and poetry based on real-life experiences and feelings, much of which relates to family in some way. I don’t advertize what’s real and what’s not, though those closest to me could probably tell you. I have listened to discussions at workshops and conference that deal with this issue. Should we, can we, use material in our real lives that includes our interactions or relationships with others?

Easy answer – yes, you can, as long as you’re telling the truth, though if you fictionalize it, you’ll have fewer problems. Not so easy – will this change my relationships? Easy answer – very possibly, unless the people in question are already dead. Even then, their heirs may have something to say about it.

Reality television and social media has changed our social landscapes now. Many people post negative things about themselves and don’t seem to mind, or worse, don’t seem to recognize the negativity. Is it okay then to go ahead and expose that negative statement if the person her/himself has already made it public? That answer may depend as much on your age and experience as anything else. Older adults know that what’s said and done in public can come back to haunt you. The younger generations may not care. They seem to leave it up to the individual writer to decide.

When we’re unsure of how much to reveal, perhaps it would help if we can answer a couple of questions. What is the difference between reality and truth? Is something true simply because it is real or is truth more nuanced than reality makes it appear? What is the balance between the two?

How many times has someone you know said, “That’s unbelievable!”

Keep it in mind, because, sometimes, if what you want is truth, less reality may be the better choice.

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