Truth and Consequences
I once wrote a short story that was loosely based on my aunt. She was a woman who liked to have the inside scoop on her friends and neighbours, back in the days of the party line. People called her a gossipy old hen, so I will simply call her Henny.
After dinner was over, Henny would place a chair underneath her wall phone, wait for it to ring, then carefully pick it up and listen in on the conversation. There were several people sharing the same party line, all with individual rings: a long and a short, two short ones, etc.
My aunt knew everyone’s ring tone. It didn’t really matter though, since she listened in on every single conversation, no matter how interesting or dull it might have been. When I visited her house, I was a young girl and I thought that she must have a lot of friends, since she seemed to be on the phone all evening long.
What I didn’t understand was why she sat there so quietly, without saying anything. Eventually Henny’s daughter explained it to me. “She’s not talking because she’s eavesdropping,” my cousin said. “She does it every night.”
"Oh." It was inevitable that, years later when my passion for writing grew, I would create a short story based on Aunt Henny. I called it “Party Line” (naturally) and it was one of ten stories chosen for a short story anthology. As soon as I was notified of my top ten win, my censor (since it badgers me, I call it Badger) started its nagging.
“She’ll recognize herself,” Badger said. “Your whole family will be mad at you. Don’t let anyone publish it.”
It was an honour to be chosen along with validation that I could, indeed, write. “But if Aunt Henny sees it…” Badger warned. I didn’t want to pull it out of the anthology, but instead of being thrilled by the story’s publication, I was afraid to tell my family about it.
What Will They Say?
I had two things that saved me. First, I had drastically changed my aunt’s description and circumstances. This lessened the possibility that anyone would think the story was based on her.
Secondly, it really didn’t matter. Why? Because Henny didn’t read it. I found out that my aunt never read any of my writing, and neither did my cousin or anyone else in her family.
I have spoken with many writers who worry about offending someone, whose censors trail after them, spouting dire predictions. Usually nothing happens and the authors can step from the shadows again. Their censors retreat to regroup and wait for the next opportunity to ambush them.
There’s something else that happens, something interesting. It’s called denial. How many times have we heard someone criticize a relative or friend for an unsavory trait that they, themselves, share? I’m sure that I’ve done it myself.
A friend of mine is fond of saying, “If you spot it, you own it.” Yet most people would deny that they’re anything like the person they’re criticizing. "Who, me? No way."
Only the most self-aware people see themselves as others see them. And if they do, they’re honest enough to admit their shortcomings, even laugh about them. But what if they read about themselves in a story? Would they laugh then?
Perhaps not. Yet the odds are that most people, even the self-aware ones, wouldn’t recognize themselves. They’re more apt to say things like, “The woman in that story was such a know-it-all; I could have written a better character.”
Note: There’s another kind of censorship that involves offending certain groups of people for their beliefs, ethnicity or life choices. This is a very difficult subject, one that I won’t attempt to address (or I’m not qualified to address). This is a topic for a different type of discussion.
Banishing The Censor
Unless you’re writing non-fiction (like a biography) it’s unlikely that you will tell a story exactly as it happened. As the story changes to suit the theme and carry the plot, the character changes as well. By the time the story is ready to submit, these modifications have created quite a different person than the one who initially inspired that character.
When my eavesdropping Aunt Henny indulged in her nightly phone tapping, she was in her early fifties, content with her role as a farm wife and mother. In “Party Line”, the eavesdropper was in her thirties, sexy, thoroughly bored with her rural life, and not that interested in her children. Except for her nightly habit, my aunt had little in common with her.
Had I realized it then, I could have confronted Badger and told him to stop pestering me. Shrugged off his warnings. Stuffed him back into the box and taped it shut.
And if the worst had happened, if Henny actually read the story and called me out, I could have feigned surprise and said, “But that character is nothing like you.” It would have been true. The Badger would no longer have any power over me.
Set Yourself Free
Our best writing happens when we let our characters speak and direct the plot. If we muzzle them, afraid that someone will take offense, the story can become stilted and lose its credibility. Often it results in a reader saying, “I don’t buy it. The character wouldn't act that way.”
Readers quickly pick up on phony characters. They also grow impatient when the writing doesn’t flow. If I start to read a book where the main character seems awkward and unreal, I won’t invest any more time in it.
One of the best things about writing is the joy of letting our imaginations and creativity run free. It’s fulfilling and…glorious. Don’t let a censor stand in your way. Write what you must write.
My Badger didn’t completely go away after the Henny story. He still loiters nearby, and every so often, he steps in to read over my shoulder. “Be careful,” he warns.
The difference is that I now challenge him. When he says, “You can’t write that”, I quote the phrase made famous by a former Canadian Prime Minister: “Just watch me.”