Don’t Fear God, Fear the Writer

After I’d written Memoirs of a Reluctant Archaeologist, I approached the subject of publication with trepidation. This novel is inspired by many true people and stories and I was afraid said people would recognize themselves. Archaeology is a very small and incestuous community. My fear was real and with cause. 

I attended the Surrey International Writers’ Conference about that time, and attempted to pitch my novel to an editor (“I don’t do memoirs!” she cried, rather crotchedly). Rejected, I got up from my chair, and in a moment of serendipity, I found myself walking past the author of the Michael Slade crime novel series. Jay Clarke was between author pitch sessions and was doodling on his notepad. I scooted over and asked if I could bug him before his next appointment showed up. “Of course!” 

I told him my dilemma: I had this fictionalized account of my experiences but I was afraid that people would recognize themselves and I would consequently receive backlash. 

“My rule of thumb is to mix fiction with the truth,” Jay told me. “I mix about 70% truth with about 30% fiction. Confuse the ID of the people by switching sexes, hair colour, mannerism, etc.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’ve done that. But the situations are pretty unique and they STILL might recognize themselves.”

“Were they acting like assholes?” 

“Yeah.” Jay had astutely picked up on what I most afraid. I smiled.

“Well, then it’s their own damn fault.” I burst out laughing, and he continued, “If you don’t want to be portrayed as an asshole, you shouldn’t act like an asshole.” As Jay said this last part, I said it with him. It was common sense and, really, I just needed confirmation. 

“Besides,” Jay continued, “it’s unlikely the person will come forward and publicly denounce your book because then they’d have to admit to being the asshole in your story.”

Good point. Especially coming from someone who is a lawyer by day.

Now that I’ve been writing for a while, doing writing groups and courses, and communing more with an extended writing community, I hear this question a lot. Mostly I hear it from people who are new to writing or who are writing a memoir or autobiography. “What if the people I write about recognize themselves and get angry? I’m afraid to publish.”

I always remember Jay’s wise words: if people don’t want to be portrayed as assholes, they shouldn’t act like assholes.

Writers are extremely observant people. We love to people-watch. We get inspiration from observing our environment. With regards to memoirs, it’s usually because a person is traumatised and needs to work through the trauma that they become a writer. Writing about trauma can be cathartic. And trauma often involves some assholes. 

When it comes right down to it, writers are more powerful than god, whichever god you may subscribe to. 

From WikiArt

Some people fear that god will judge and condemn them based on their behaviour. In Christian systems, it’s an eternity of hell if a person is judged unworthy of heaven.  

Writers usually won’t condemn anyone. No. They’ll just document the behaviour and record it for posterity. Good writers show rather than tell. They’ll describe in detail every way in which a person is acting like an asshole without actually saying they’re an asshole. It is every human through time who then reads these words who will then judge and condemn those ‘characters’ as assholes. 

By all means, feel free to fear your god and believe that you’ll be judged upon your death. Instead, I choose to acknowledge the god-given gift of writers to hold assholes accountable for their actions in this lifetime and beyond by merely observing and recording it all. 

So keep being an asshole. Writers will always need writing material.

And, for the writers out there, don’t fear publishing. Assholes will be assholes, whether you publish your book or not. If they truly are assholes, they probably won’t read your fantastic book anyway. It’s too good for them 😉

You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.

—  Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Further Reading

Jacob Nordby: The Creative Cure

Heal + Create

Lauren Sapala: The Joyful Writer (a self-paced video course)

The Creative Penn: The 8 Fears That Hold Writers Back From Publishing Their Books

Jerry Waxler: Frequently expressed fears about publishing a memoir

Anna-Marie O’Brien: The Magic Key: Unlock your Memoir

3 responses to “Don’t Fear God, Fear the Writer

  1. Do the stories about what ‘assholes’ did end with a lesson that can be learned so others don’t make the same mistakes? If not, then what do you or others gain by this condemnation? Just curious.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Margy, please forgive me if I misinterpret your comment as I attempt to reply.
      I learned that some people are assholes, and others act like assholes. I believe a lot of us can fall into the latter category, given certain circumstances, and I have been guilty of this. What lesson can be paid forward, however, is likely entirely in the eye of the beholder.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Yes, I see what you mean. I happen to think a certain Prime Minister is one of the biggest assholes ever. He, and his supporters, would not agree with nor ‘learn’ anything from my condemnation.

        Liked by 1 person

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