Carol Guess is the author of six books of poetry and prose, including the prose poetry collection Tinderbox Lawn. Forthcoming books include a novel, Homeschooling, and a prose poetry collection, Doll Studies: Forensics. She is Associate Professor of English at Western Washington University, where she teaches Creative Writing and Queer Studies. Find out more at her blog.
My brother pops up in my work now and then. I enjoy documenting his adventures; no matter how wild he appears in print, he never complains that I’ve misrepresented him. That’s probably because I don’t have a brother. Other family members have been less than thrilled about seeing themselves represented in the pages of my books. It’s difficult to convey to someone who isn’t a creative writer that non-journalistic representations are necessarily fictitious, and that simply being included in a piece can often be meant as a compliment.
Students regularly ask questions about representing real people in their work. Genre is usually not their concern. While mainstream media is obsessed with the distinction between lying (fiction) and truth-telling (nonfiction), my students are smarter than that, and recognize that the line between lies and truth is often perilously thin. Their concerns are personal, immediate: what happens if Mom or Dad or Roommate or Boyfriend stumbles on the piece, whether published or in a backpack? What if they’re angry, or misunderstand the intention behind the representation?
I don’t have easy answers to these questions, so I’m asking you. How do you grapple with the ethical and aesthetic questions involved in writing about characters based (at least in part) on real people? I hope you’ll mull this over with your students, classmates, or writing buddies. Maybe you’ll post to the comment section right now and share your thoughts.
Back to my brother: inventing an imaginary sibling allowed me to explore family dynamics in ways I couldn’t when I was worried about what real family members might think. Today’s exercise is to invent a lie life, a fictional character modeled on a real person who is not, in fact, real. What’s it like to put an imaginary baby to bed or spend twilight hours with an imaginary mistress?
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