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Using Family as Inspiration

We see it all the time in movies and on television. Someone writes about their life, and the people in it, only for those people to find out and be outraged at their portrayal. We're told from an early age to write what we know, but how do we handle that when using our real life, and the people in it, for inspiration? I personally write about family dynamics because I grew up in a large family and it's something close to my heart. It's a topic that not only interests me, but I feel comfortable when writing about it. My first book draws heavily from my relationship with my brother Noah, but it also pulls from my marriage, from my mother and her relationship with my godfather, and from her and my father's marriage. There are characters who are an amalgamation of multiple people in my life. There is no one-to-one ratio of character to person in my life, but anyone who reads it might be able to pick out a piece of themselves. Some of my short stories even pull verbatim from my life or stories I heard growing up. So, how do the people in my life handle it when they find out... I honestly don't know. Well, I don't know for most of them.

My mom knows I pull a lot from her life and she always seems to be fine with it. Everything is fictionalized enough that it reads as an homage rather than a retelling, and she understands that artistic liberty. To be honest though, most of my other family hasn't read my work. They don't know the pieces of them that I've pulled into my stories. Not because I'm afraid to tell them, but because at some point I feel like I also own those pieces and am allowed to use them. What I mean by that is that at some point someone is so deeply a part of your life that their habits and nuances are a part of you as well as them. Lifting bits and pieces from the people around me doesn't seem like a big deal as long as I'm sure to add just as much fiction as I do reality. My first book is such a blending of people and fiction that while my family will absolutely see a reflection of themselves in some places, there is no one-to-one connection in any character.

In my second book, I found myself wading deeper into retelling territory and I am honestly worried about how it might be received. For some context, my second book is about a family in 1999, doomsday prepping for y2k. That part is all fiction, and the characters are once again a mix of people and fiction. However, there is one plot point that's worrying me. In the story, the family has three daughters and an infant son who dies of SIDS. This plot point leads to several character arcs and the main climax. It's critical to include and was heartbreaking to write. That's because it was almost word for word from my stepfather and his experience of losing a child to this illness. I told him I was writing about this topic and wanted to do it justice. He sat down with me and let me interview him, making sure I got all the details down correctly. Now, I don't think this is an issue because he gave consent to share this intimate story, and lent my novel a sense of authenticity for those readers who have experienced the same pain. The part that still scares me about writing this family story is that his ex-wife, who obviously experienced this as well, doesn't know I'm using it.

There are a few things in play here. Will she ever read this book– probably not. Will her children (my step-siblings) read it– maybe. Will it upset any of those people– I don't know. I talked to my oldest step-sister and she assured me it won't be an issue, but there is still a piece of me that worries. When we as authors choose to share intimate details from our family history I believe there is an obligation to do so with honesty and respect. I also feel there is a sense of duty in telling the people who it will affect most if, by some miracle, your book makes it big time and those details are shared with the world in a very public way.

There are pieces of my first novel that people in our lives will know connect directly to my mom, but nothing contains intimate details of her life. There are little quirks and personality traits. Nothing that could be embarrassing or open old wounds if my book is widely read. This story of losing a child though has the potential to do both of those things, and while I have approval from my step-father, I don't know his ex-wife well enough to talk to her about the topic. So where does that leave us as authors?

It leads to bigger questions about telling stories about possible dead relatives, or grandparents who aren't altogether there. When does a story become public domain for anyone in the family to take ownership of, and how do we define that idea of family? Do we need to clear it with every member of our family to use those details? And what happens if we ask for permission to write about an intimate detail (or any detail) and are told no? Is it better to ask forgiveness than permission, or does that just mean we know what we're doing is wrong?

I don't have a lot of answers to these questions. The only thing I can do is my best. That means asking permission where I can, and hoping I do the story justice. Some authors might try and tell themselves it's flattering to be put into a book. Of course the family will love it, they might think, but I feel like that's delusional. No one wants to imagine they're the fodder for fiction. Fiction is meant to be a little over the top, even when it's reflecting real life. No one wants to feel like they're being studied and mined by a family member. It still happens though. I can't help it! My family does something just a little quirky and it's like it goes into a word bank in the back of my mind to be used later on just the right character. From singing whatever you're doing, to teaching a child to "pick, roll, and flick" a booger. It's all wonderful details for a novel.

Like in so many other instances, I look to my favorite authors when trying to find some guidance to these big questions about writing. In this case, I look to the king of writing about his family, Pat Conroy. You guys should be able to tell by now how much I admire this man's writing. He is an artist in this world of craft. In several interviews, he talks about how his family is an inspiration for his work whether consciously or subconsciously. They are simply what he knows. In one interview he admits that he cannot write the word father without thinking about his own. Understandably, his family hasn't loved being under such scrutiny not only by him but by fans of his books. Conroy talks about them finding peace eventually and supporting some of this work, like his brothers' soft approval after reading "Beach Music." I suppose that might be the end goal as a writer using their family as inspiration, a soft understanding and acceptance of how deeply we're impacted by our family.

Like Conroy, my family is my obsession, yet I don't find inspiration int hem because of the unhappiness like he did. I don't mine for mysery and use trauma as fuel. Sure, all families are complicated and have drama, but mine is not a terribly unhappy one. It's the complexities of the relationships, the diversity of characteristics, and the history of each person that beings me inspiration. I cannot sit down to write without them slipping into every letter of my work. I'll try my best to not lean into flattery or slander, and only take bits and pieces of them here and there. I'll use Conroy as both my cautious tale and guiding post. While his family may have pulled away initially, been weary of him and distrustful of his observations, eventually (it seems) they understood his fascination and deep need for them. I'll keep asking permission where I can and hope for forgiveness where I can't.


My inspiration (my family)

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