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too much information

writers are often advised to write what they know. there’s a good reason for that: if you write about what’s famailiar, even if it’s a detail buried completely out of context, your connection to the material comes through, something that readers can usually spot (even if they’re unaware of it) and relate to. however strange the setting, from whatever far reaches of the imagination your characters are drawn, if it’s done properly, the reader will identify with the real.

while i never had a problem inserting incidental elements of things that happened to me or that happened to other people i know into a story, i had until the last couple of years avoided putting anything beyond an incidental mention because, like most people, i had subconsciously never thought of what happened in my life as being tale-worthy.

i won’t say the pendulum has entirely swung in the other direction, but at this point pretty much everything i write has at least some moments that are based not just on a belief or an idea i can relate to, but on an honest, factual series of events.

not all of these things are directly from my experience, though. a lot of the time, i just like to include things that people tell me, because they’re stories that stick with me and i think that they deserve to be told, or because i will hear something that perfectly illustrates a theme that i have already waiting. rarely, these are things i get from strangers- something overheard on the bus, something i find mentioned on the internet, something i hear third or fouth hand. but a lot of times, the stories i appropriate don’t come from strangers, they come from the people who are closest to me in the world. and that may be a problem.

if someone took things that i told them and put them out there, in the world, out of context for other people to look at and judge, i’d be mortified. i apparently don’t have these qualms about doing the same to other people and, what’s worse, some of the things that end up in what i write, while they’re always in service of the story, are pretty much naked of disguise for those who know anything about the individuals involved. so at what point does appropriation become too much information? at what point am i obliged to ask permission, or, in the case of more sensitive details, find something else that works in the story?

i’ve included some pretty personal details of things that have happened to me in my writing, which is fine, because i can handle the exposure, but what if those events weren’t things that happened when i was by myself? if i’m telling a story about something that happened to me and my mother while we were on vacation, it isn’t only my story to tell, but hers. does that give others the right to censor what we write because it’s uncomfortable for them? or if they make the acquaintance of a writer, does that make them fair game? (i’m picturing my life where all of my friends refuse to speak to me about anything except the weather.)

none of this would bother me if i didn’t think i’d have a problem with someone doing the same to me. as it is, i’m haunted by the idea that i’ll be able to find a publisher for a first novel and at my book launch, someone who trusted me will walk up and punch me in the face. it could happen.

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