Writing About Real People

by Nick Jaina
March 26, 2019

Students often ask how to handle the difficult situation of writing intimate details of their life when those details always include other people, people who might be hurt if they were to read it, which they probably will because they are an intimate part of the writer's life. I usually quote Anne Lamott, who wrote, "If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better." She also says that you own your story just as much as anyone else, and you have a right to tell it however you want.

There is more too it, of course. What we come up against in these situations is how much we have turned people in our lives into a storytelling element. We all do it. Our mother represents our guilt, our frustration, our sense of anxiety. Our partner is holding us back, or pushing us too hard. People become archetypes. It is the essential nature of how our brains work that we want to make all the processing of information easier for us, and so we put people into categories.

When someone we love reads our memoir writing, they see how we've turned them into this archetype and it can be insulting or humiliating for them. "This is what you think of me?" They see themselves, rightly, as a nuanced, principled person, and you've collapsed them into a cartoon.

Therefore, we have two choices in our writing: 1) decide that we don't care what they think or 2) be rigorous with the judgments we make in our archetyping.

It's not a bad thing to turn someone into a storytelling element. Our stories would be a mess if we tried to give every contrasting detail about every person. What we can do is point to the complexity of people's characters, to acknowledge that everyone embodies contradictions, that we are all more than one thing.

It's hard to do. It's really hard. It might take months or years to get a grip on how to talk about people in your life while being honest but not being brutal. Just because it's hard work doesn't mean it's the wrong path. I think there is a lot we can learn about ourselves by working to be more honest about how we see people. It can show us our prejudices and fears, and it can show us that we all contain parts of our enemies inside of us.

I do an exercise in class that I call an Archetypal Mask, where I randomly assign an archetype to my students and ask them to write about themselves from that archetype. I am the Sailor, for example, or I am the Coyote. Lately I've been trying to involve more modern archetypes, because archetypes are being unconsciously created by humans all the time. At a workshop in Salt Lake City recently, one student, H, mentioned the archetype of Trump. We all laughed and then considered it for a minute. It's a new archetype but can also be broken down into older forms, or retained for what it is.

When I went around randomly assigning archetypes, I somewhat unrandomly assigned H the Trump archetype. What she ended up writing really touched me with its empathy and honesty. "I did not invent the rule that women want powerful men. I simply play by that rule."

Whether we are facing enemies or loved ones in our lives, at some point they will all serve as our antagonists. I've found it very useful to do this exercise to understand their viewpoint. It doesn't mean excusing bad behavior, it just means taking a moment to put on that mask. These exercises in empathy are a really special thing that writing allows us all to do.