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Carol Guess: Inventing My Brother

Carol Guess Flash Fiction Writer

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.

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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?

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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. 

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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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For fur­ther read­ing, check out FlashFiction.Net’s sug­gested read­ings of flash fic­tion and prose poetry col­lec­tions, antholo­gies, and craft books, by click­ing here.

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Isn’t it won­der­ful that when we write fic­tion, we can cre­ate a char­ac­ter like your brother, and choose to give him any of the real life qual­i­ties we see in our friends or fam­ily? Or send him on any of the real life adven­tures we’ve taken our­selves or seen our friends take? It’s fun that only cer­tain read­ers could pos­si­bly know.

From dfredrikson

My mother’s death got me writ­ing; our inter­ac­tions and my mem­o­ries of her keep her real to me there. I wor­ried that I would for­get her ways, her voice, her every­thing, so I wrote to pre­serve her. She gave me a spon­ta­neous voice as I wrote to keep her close. Imag­ine, with her death she gave me this joy­filled cre­ative work. After the anniver­sary of her death I will have writ­ten almost 365 pages of what life has been with­out her alive, and with those I will make con­nec­tions to another space and time dif­fer­ent from when she was here with me.

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