Telling the Whole Story

It is often said you should “write what you know”, but just how far you’re willing to go is sometimes a story in itself. LitKicks member Andeh posed the following question about writers and their subject matter.

Imagine you wrote a novel that had to do with people or places you knew; if you put it out, it could bring you fame or fortune — but also could potentially hurt or bring scandal to people or places you knew. In such a case, what would you do?

Is it more important for you to express your stories at any cost or would you never publish things very personal, to protect yourself or others?

For me, I wonder about this all the time. If I could publish a personal story about people I knew, I’d have to carefully think about it. Is it worth anything to get your art out there? Would you make yourself or others or even your hometown “suffer” for the art of writing? For the sake of art (and possible rewards that could come with it), is anything worth it?

We’d like to hear what you think about this dilemma. What would you do? Maybe you’ve been in this situation before — what decisions did you make and how did it play out?

29 Responses

  1. HesseHesse once wrote that

    Hesse once wrote that all fiction is autobiography. No matter how much we deceive ourselves or the presumed audience the words we write are alluding to the events of one’s life.

    I read Sherwood Anderson, Chekhov, Kerouac etc. and they write snippets of life. Hemingway is also guilty of this crime.

    Jacopo from Eco’s work is more or less Eco himself. The struggle presented in the text if reduced to some absurd post-Freud quasi-deconstructed pseudo reality is always the psychology of the autuer him or herself.

    Freud wrote that art is a sort of self-treatment of madness. We cannot escape our so-called ‘rose tinged’ visors no matter how we distort our viewpoints.

    I ask all of you: have you ever created a character or plot that didn’t borrow from your reality?

    Of course representive and actual realities are not the same. In the end we only know what we know. We can make for all kinds of aberrations, combine all kinds of elements but never the less these ideations come from what we know already.

    All too often fame and infamy are all the same. What did Sinclair Lewis think when he was writing ‘Main Street’ and beyond what the writer thinks or writes or intends to say the reader will add his/her own semiotic experience to the text.

    The best texts are those where the reality can grab a hold and interpose him/herself in the vanguard of the story. So even if the author could manage to weave a tall that didn’t sound of his own dreamday the reader would add their own dreamday and the whole premise would be kaput.

    Going back to an idea you hear me venture often: ‘we are all creatures of memory that is what divides us from the animals’ -John Dewey. Dewey must not have been aware of Pavlov’s experiments as animals base action on memory. Perhaps connations all become dennotions for them, but in the end whether we choose to recall it as so or not memory pervades our every communicative output.

  2. How did they know?I like this
    How did they know?

    I like this question; it reminds me of something I’ve wanted to ask about the author of Look Homeward Angel, Thomas Wolfe. I’ve always heard that he upset a lot of people from his home town, because he based characters and events from his novels on those people. My question is, how did everyone know this? Did he reveal it? Did the people in his hometown let the cat out of the bag? If they did, why? When and how did it become common knowledge?

    As for the question, would I reveal things even if detrimental to others? I don’t think so. Detrimental to myself? Yes. The funny thing about that is, I used to be afraid to write things about myself which were very personal or embarrassing. Now I find that when I do it, (a) People don’t believe it’s true, even when I tell them it’s true. “Bullshit!” they cry, “You’re pulling our leg!” and (2) Not enough people read it to really cause a good scandal in the tabloids, dammit.

  3. “A self treatment” of our own
    “A self treatment” of our own “madness”, eh? I like that. Yet don’t know if its true. I have indeed created some characters in stories that borrowed from my own reality — or someone else’s.

    Sometimes I wonder if some authors create certain characters specifically knowing that, in their genericness, many people will relate to it. And then again, I’ve heard of many books being put out, where the author never imagined anyone would be able to relate and a whole throng of earth appears before them and says, “hey, that happened to me/or I can relate to that” and the author is always mystified, and surprised.

  4. Fairly SimpleI would consider
    Fairly Simple

    I would consider my text in the same manner that I’d consider my speech, and I habitually don’t say things that are harmful to others — that is, if I can prevent it. So I wouldn’t publish or even share the thing.

    Or if you must “get it out there”, change the events and people to a parallel likeness of the truth. The story is what matters, right? Give the story. There’s no need to harm anyone with it.

  5. Write It and Try to Get
    Write It and Try to Get Published

    Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street supposedly made him a pariah in his home town.

    Write whatever works. Unless you were chained in a cellar most of your childhood, or you were in a masochistic relationship that drove you into a mental ward, it can’t be too bad. If you did this to someone else, let the reader make judgement.

    Many only read for escape. As your correspondent has noted here before: writing’s best when someone writes something that makes the reader take an inner trip into their own experience.

    If one could write a revealing tale skillfully, by all means do it but change the names to protect the guilty and avoid libel. Also for the latter, choose new scenery and make substitutes, i.e., someone could be an alcoholic instead of on heroin, a sex addict rather than a member of Over-Eaters anonymous.

    Good luck.

  6. That sounds like a good
    That sounds like a good philosophy. Unless the names are necessary for the story, as in Woodward & Bernstein exposing the Watergate scandal, why hurt others?

  7. It is a good philosophy from
    It is a good philosophy from an interpersonal viewpoint, but I am surprised to hear it stated so directly. What if the story you hold in is the one story, the only story, you have to tell? I admire the choice to put people’s feelings before art, but I couldn’t always make that same choice.

  8. I had heard that about
    I had heard that about Sinclair Lewis as well … and I may be wrong about this, but wasn’t a similar scenario the reason Thomas Wolfe called his book “You Can’t Go Home Again”?

    I’m imagining what Allen Ginsberg must have felt when he sent “Kaddish” out to the world, a detailed record of his mother’s insanity. She was already dead at the time (thus the title) but I bet even AG had second thoughts.

  9. Been There …I like this
    Been There …

    I like this question because I distinctly remember the first time I faced this problem. I used to have a few gripes with my in-laws (back when I had in-laws) and years ago I included a comic piece about them in my Queensboro Ballads web project. It was the mid-90’s, the web still hadn’t reached most of America, and it never occurred to me that someday my mother-in-law would read it. Eventually I heard through my brother-in-law, “they read it and they were very surprised.” That was all. Painless … and it was never mentioned again.

    Since then, I’ve had to make choices like this many times, and I always make it a rule to tell the whole story. If the truth hurts, let it hurt. It’s my truth.

  10. I guess I’m making a
    I guess I’m making a distinction between showing someone’s personality in a negative light as opposed to, say, if someone I know is a good baseball coach and father, but years ago was a drug addict, or something like that. Maybe I’m reading too much into the question.

  11. I’m glad you posted this. I
    I’m glad you posted this. I had confused two of Wolfe’s books in an earlier post. When I spoke of Look Homeward, Angel, which was published in 1929, I should have said You can’t go home again,which came out in 1940. I was thinking that “you can’t go home again” was merely the theme of Look Homeward Angel. Obviously I haven’t read them. A glaring hole in my American Lit background, no doubt.

  12. Self and OthersThe thing that
    Self and Others

    The thing that drives what I write has nothing to do with other people, and has nothing to do with fame/fortune/success.

    I write what I write because I’m moved to do so. I’m moved to find or express a truth about something.

    The question raised contains a certain fallacy, that MY perception of someone else’s truth corresponds to their perception of their own truth, and of mine. It gets complicated. It needn’t be.

    What is true is that reading something about yourself tells you more about the person who wrote it than anything else. The subjects of the writing can either be offended or take it for what it is, one artist’s perception expressed in art. I can’t be held responsible for someone else’s misconception of reality.

    Feelings expressed among loved ones will, despite sometimes painful (although surprisingly often not painful) honesty, usually result in a better relationship.

    Honest truths expressed among people who are hiding that truth from their personal communication will often result in a change in the relationhip. If I’ve secretly hated someone, and I say so in my writing, then at least the two of us are rid of one another’s company.

    As a culture, I think we place too much emphasis on how other people feel. That’s not to say that it shouldn’t be considered, but I think to do so at the expense of how WE feel is a mistake. Because how others feel is, again, only a perception, and often wrong anyway.

  13. Yes, I guess I was focusing
    Yes, I guess I was focusing on, “it may bring uncertain events..” or so forth. I mean, sometimes, writing something personal or an expose could bring something positive. Generic Po-dunk town could get publicity and people would want to visit there. Or you could have portrayed Mr. X as “the biggest party animal in town” and he’s grateful for it, and it improves his status. But, you don’t hear much about that. You usually hear, “Dude, he (generic author) shouldn’t have written that, now his whole town hates him” or something of such.

  14. Philip RothIt just occurred
    Philip Roth

    It just occurred to me that this question seems to be a major theme of Philip Roth’s. Apparently his first book, “Goodbye Columbus”, an excellent book of short stories, offended his family and family friends deeply because of its negative portrayal of some Jewish-Americans, which they felt fed into popular stereotypes. Roth later recounted the ordeal he went through in his autobiography “The Facts”. He also covered this territory in his novel “The Ghost Writer”.

  15. so there you go. pissing
    so there you go. pissing people off will result in a fountain of future projects.

    criticism can result in healing or in hurt feelings. sometimes, good things are very painful even though theyre necessary for a more fruitful life. the thought of withholding truths for the sake of hurt feelings strikes me as cowardly. but thats just me.

  16. ThoughtsSometimes I think

    Sometimes I think writers will wait to see what the reaction to their thoughts/writing will be before they go further. And there’s usually more, as in “there’s more where that came from”. And I guess it depends “why” the writer is writing something. It could be need, satire, revenge(?) or therapy (among other things). If it’s therapy then I think the author doesn’t care what people think of it in the end. People may be hurt, but if it helps the writer’s peace of mind, then I think it’s okay.

    I’ve been hearing others talk about the “need” to write. Yes, I see that. That’s an idea within itself, I guess, sometimes that need to write could get in the way of thinking of others…so… when is it okay?

  17. Opening Our Wingsin n-Dis
    Opening Our Wings

    in n-D

    is what we do
    since we can do it no other way
    fanning light to infinity
    while searching for shadows
    in the glowing fires of
    re-cognition and re-covered memories
    exposing to hurt, pain and ecstasies
    and shapes we shall never attain
    in the real world – in the broken light
    with leaden shoes and well-found duties or
    the projection of love into staircases
    and rainbows of afternoon sorrow
    the care that has to be
    which nourishes our dreams feeding the
    suspense which allows us to suffer
    enough, enough for another day
    in arcades of misunderstanding
    you reach out and catch my breath
    hear my song find me tripped and trapped
    radiant eyes in the coma of search
    your present
    stale pale statement of
    jealousy when all I do is tune my strings
    prepare my soft wings to love you
    – understand you, the likes of you,
    the membrane of existence –
    the more and more ..
    knowing experiencing me
    looking out for
    the whole story
    the whole life I see unseen
    is me
    and back to all of you,
    folding back like you.

    And (how much) I was (fearfully) attacked when being discovered, traced down while telling (yes: even when only thinking) the ‘whole story’, trying to check out with words, projections, novel connections, alien conclusions, experimental insights (how do they feel, the contexts: are they consistent, how would they feel ?) what is “real” (from school essays to Litkicks love-scanning probing posts) – when ‘people’ just were not ready for that in that particular instance – and me not ready (willing) for that blend of time to project my mind to the plane which constitutes our reality, which we in one way or another have agreed upon, relate to in our social and behavioral contracts. Which have to be, no doubt, in a certain manner: “but (do) we decide which is right, and which is an illusion..”.

    (But flying is the only way to a sound message for us s human beings, “the only solution, isn’t it amazing?!”)

    And, again, there’s class consciousness – like a trademark of great writers. Telling the whole story, of a city, of power relationships, lost dreams, exploitation. Blood for oil, everyday psychological warfare, why do slums line the dangerous beaches, volcanoes, why does the West know better, always better, in crisis management, expensive contingency planning, afterwards …, and about AIDS, the sex and drug backyard …

    Of Baudelaire, e.g., it is said, that he drew his vision and insight from that ‘sickness unto death’ impregnating the lives of the lower classes, of their misery and prostitution, their whole story, from “a sickness that is still ours, though its symptoms have changed” (Michael Hamburger in the introduction to Twenty Prose Poems, City Lights).
    A writer’s “‘subjectivity’ and apparent egocentricity are (might be) misleading. Poets and moralists, unlike biologists, are not provided with guinea pigs and white rats on which they can test their theories; they must content themselves with a limited measure of insight into the minds and motives of others, and the rather more reliable evidence of self-knowledge. Certainly we must allow for a certain amount of inconsistency, if not of self-contradiction, in the moral substance (of Baudelaire’s work). Baudelaire was his own guinea pig; and in his experiments he made ample use of masks, of what Yeats called the ‘anti-self’ or ‘antithetical self’. Whether in the first person singular or not, many of Baudelaire’s statements are experimental in this way, not to say dialectical. Yet it was for the sake of an impersonal truth that he sacrificed his personal vanity and dignity, to the extent of confessing to crimes which he had never committed. His only recompense – and that a small one – for he sacrifice was shocking a complacent public by an open exhibition of its secret indecencies. This too was his bond – perhaps his only bond – with his brother, the ‘hypocritical reader’.” Providing data.

    Or Baudelaire himself about the ability to tell the whole story (in “Crowds”), the “universal communion”: “The poet adopts as his own all the professions, all the joys and all the miseries with which circumstance confronts him. What men call love is very meagre, very restricted and very feeble, compared to this ineffable orgy, to this holy prostitution of the soul that abandons itself entirely, poetry and charity included, to the unexpected arrival, to the passing stranger.”

    Happy New Year to You, Andeh
    and to all of You
    in this board
    in these weird times
    where realities mingle, relativate aspects
    but nevertheless the unjust ones of today.

  18. IntentionsIn a typical

    In a typical relationship discussion with a group of mid-twenties men and women I found myself very vocal, often feeling that my viewpoint was a necessary addition. I didn’t mention any specific names, dates, or places … I just provided what I thought to be good generic examples to explain myself here and there.

    At the end of the evening, one of my friends asked, “Did you realize that you talked about my drama, so-and-so’s drama, and so-and-so’s drama?” After thinking about it momentarily, I realized that I had. But I honestly didn’t mean to.

    What is near and dear to us will come out in some fashion when we write whether or not we mean it to. We may even think we’re simply creating a scenario when in actuality it’s real and will showcase the life or lives of those we know.

    However, when we write (as opposed to some of our speaking moments) we take time (ideally) to proofread, ponder, cut and paste, etc…If I realize that someone could be hurt by what I expose, my first question is, is this an issue that can/should be confronted face to face before it hits print or the WWW?

    I don’t mean to propose that we heal the world then talk about its messes. But as long as my writing isn’t like Jerry Springer where so much should be left at home, I’m cool. That being said, I just sent out a poem for publication that could blow up a lot of things in my household. But they are things I don’t think I can help (and I’m passive aggressive…)

    Bottom line…our intentions mean a lot. It’s your call — are you prepared to handle the consequences?

  19. “What if the story you hold
    “What if the story you hold in is the one story, the only story, you have to tell?”

    i would find it important to give the story clearly, honestly, bluntly–if it were a case in which the truth needed to be brought forward, such as bill’s “watergate scandal” example. in that case, the individuals and the harmful facts about them would need to be brought forth (for the purpose of the text), and the truth of the matter would be most important. i think i had such a quick answer because i have a firm belief that people should do whatever they want without harming another, and that they should never harm another when it can be prevented.

  20. addendum:i had to think, just

    i had to think, just now, about how i have shared fairly heavy information about certain people. i should have clarified:

    i have no problem sometimes sharing information about painful events dealt by another. if someone doesn’t want painful events shared, well, i think they shouldn’t have caused the painful events (my mention of the watergate scandal was to bring to mind this same idea–that if you’ve dealt it, you have to face the consequences). but i wouldn’t share information that would harm innocents.

    i think i should have differentiated guilty and innocent. i knew how i felt about the matter, but i wasn’t sure how to communicate it. i haven’t tried it in a while.

  21. The Price of EverythingArt
    The Price of Everything

    Art demands of us a total and complete sacrifice. Creation is its own reward, and if, like god, we are at some point recognized or worshipped for our creation, then that is as it should be. But one must never ask “will the creation of this one thing bring the destruction of other things dedicated to lesser gods?” That question is for the classes of priests, sycophants and non-believers to debate, as they most certainly will. The artist has but one edict to follow: Thou Shalt Create. All else pales in importance; indeed, all else is insignificant pedantry, and falls far beneath the concerns of the true artist.

  22. In L……, 199….., Mr.
    In L……, 199….., Mr. D………

    I always have a tender feeling when I read this in Kafka

  23. One can still turn it
    One can still turn it around!

    Rather than piss and moan and whine and groan; a real writer–your example, Kafka–can create surreal mental landscapes but your correspondent believes it’s best to crack jokes and keep ’em coming which this man must do while there’s still time left in the year. If one writes and writes, something’ll happen and if it doesn’t give it a rest or completely give it up — if one can.

    The characters encountered by your correspondent have been grotesques that would make any reader cringe and the nice have been too bland to write about.

    Character creation and a driving narrative are where it’s at.

  24. I like the idea that the
    I like the idea that the artist creates because that is our nature. We don’t have to explain why. If others like it, that’s a bonus!

  25. Thanks for reading and for
    Thanks for reading and for your answer warrenweappa.

    I have to tell you that I use to have problems understanding english when the messages aren

  26. personally……i grow more

    …i grow more and more certain that telling the bold truth about my own stories would be far more interesting than the vague allegory i have resorted to in order to fog out exact information.

    damn! now that i’ve answered this question, i suppose it means i’m going to have to start telling bold truths again.

    i used to. but i got scared of what it could do to ME. and others complained of being referred to in my writings as well, so i guess i decided it was more conducive to my actual life to start vague-ing things out.

    but like i said, i think it makes my writing a lot less interesting.

    i guess i got to a point where my relationships were more important to me than my writing was. but also, in the crazy balance that is this universe, there must be a time when when what we write is more important to us than our relationships with others are.

    my relationship with myself has begun to transcend my relationships with others.

    i don’t know yet if that will change my writing.

  27. Yes, I see what you’re
    Yes, I see what you’re saying. I was just thinking about how sometimes we will mention examples of things that have happened and whether or not we mention it as specific, or use it as a generic example, our surroundings and people we know affect us, and sometimes we will mention examples that have to do with specific situations and not even know they were specific. I guess if people know you well enough, they will always figure out what you are talking about (writing about?) even if you “code” it.

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