Writing Who You Know

Instead of writing what you know, have you ever written who you know? My as yet unpublished novel, You Can See More From Up Here, emerged from that impulse. I wanted to base a novel on my childhood, specifically, my relationship with my father. He was a remarkable and complicated man—a doctor, a WWII veteran, an Air Force lifer who ended his career caring for the workers of an automobile assembly plant, a deeply religious father of a large family. The problem was, I couldn’t make up a character to disguise him. The only way I could get at his essence was to use what I knew about him, incorporating facts that people who knew him would surely recognize.

So why not write a memoir or a biography? Why not stick to the facts? Because it wasn’t the facts of his life I was interested in. It was my experience of him, how he made me feel. I was interested in what happened that made the many emotions I have about him run so deep that I had to write about him.

In reality, those feelings evolved from an incremental series of events, benign and uninteresting in many cases, that built up over years, the specific circumstances of which I frankly can’t remember. What I can remember are those emotions. They don’t go away. So I fashioned a simple story that elicits what I felt most strongly about him, and that, hopefully, portrays a character that will intrigue my readers as much as he intrigued me.

Until recently, I often worried what my family might think of my book. They might see the resemblance to my real father and say I got him all wrong, I do him an injustice. In theory, I reasoned, if you base a character on a real person, there’s no way you can get that person right, anyway. To do so, you’d have to conjure a portrayal everyone agrees on. That, of course, is impossible. So why not fictionalize your story if it gets closer to the truth—or at least, what feels true to me.

And then, a few weeks ago, something happened that made me feel better about that theory.

Now, my real father died twelve years ago when he was ninety-four from complications following a single-car automobile accident that put him into a coma and on life support. My fictional father suffers a somewhat similar fate. In real life, this difficult, painful situation required a committee of family members to make hard decisions without being together to deliberate. At a recent family  gathering, my siblings recalled these weeks, each of us visiting him in the hospital at different times, then discussing on the phone what to do.

After listening to the others talk, I was amazed how different all the stories were. People argued. This happened. No, that happened. You weren’t there. No, but I was there later. Well, I was there earlier. It was a chaotic time, and everyone had their own version of events, their own story, colored by their own saturated and sometimes heated emotions. How my novel depicts these events is just as different, just as unique. So who was right?

Everyone was, of course. Everyone had their own experience.

I came away thinking, don’t I have as much a right to my story as they have to theirs? Yes, I twist facts into fiction, I bend the truth, but I bend it to create characters who reflect my unique experience. I freely admit, it’s made up, but it’s my story, my experience, no one else’s.

Biography gets at the facts of a life, and memoir gets at how those facts shape the writer’s life, as my father shaped me. By writing my story as fiction, it allowed me to fashion a lens into the facts that magnified and illuminated an emotional core that our real-life relationship, with its many millions of facets, would likely have refracted away. It’s fiction, but it feels closer to the reality of my experience with him than would any other way of writing about him.

2 comments

  1. Lisa Birk

    Yes! I have had a similar experience with the death of a family member. It was astonishing how differing our memories are! And so rich! And, of course, a parental figure who commands such strong feelings is a terrific source for fiction. I look forward to reading YOU CAN SEE ME FROM UP HERE. (Great title, too!)

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