Choosing Which Stories to Tell (And Which Ones to Leave)

As a writer, I can tell my own story, but what if I want to write about someone else’s life, and they don’t want me to? Is that okay?

Recently, I attended a talk by author Ann Patchett where she discussed both her fiction and non-fiction works. She said her friends and family never really “discovered” themselves in her novels, though their shadows haunted her literary landscape. But in her non-fiction? Hoo, boy. People saw themselves, alright. And some of them got mad.

Patchett had to decide how much to tell when she wrote about real people, had to weigh the cost of telling the truth as she saw it. In the end, she’d decided to write no holds barred, and it cost her some relationships.

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Me? I’m not sure it’s okay to write about someone who’s still living without asking permission first. Even if their life affected mine. Even if I I know big things. (There are exceptions. Another topic for another day).

We need more truth in this world, not less. But truth seasoned with love and, often, restraint.

Stories are powerful, and they can be true even when they aren’t. In my novels, I can call things like I see them. I can tell a true story in a way that keeps hurt feelings out of the mix. I can be honest without burning the town down.

This is important because, in the end, writing isn’t ultimate for me. It can’t take the place of flesh and blood people, and it’s often not worth hurting others for. So I’ve decided if I really need to say something sensitive, I’ll put it in the mouth of someone I (kind-of, maybe) made up.