Over the weekend I wrote a rather dark short story about lost innocence. The story was for mature audiences, containing a sex scene and some coarse language. I first conceived of the idea several years ago but shelved it after failing to make it work. When I came across my old notes on Saturday, I felt an urge to revisit the idea (almost 5 years later!). I stayed up late into the night, and when I was done I had an overwhelming sense of relief from dealing with unfinished business.
Though the story was pretty rough and not polished enough to satisfy me (am I ever satisfied?), I sent it to a few friends for some feedback. I wanted to know what they thought. Was it interesting or mundane? Was it too uncouth? Did it have artistic merit?
The responses I got to the writing style were positive, but when it came to the subject matter people reacted with sadness and pity.
At first I thought this was good. After all, it was a sad story and it did seek to elicit feelings of heartbreak in the reader. But the more I listened the more I realised that the feelings of pity weren’t for the characters in the story but for the author. My friends felt sorry for me for having experienced the events that I’d described.
This is a strange phenomenon I think about often. Where is the border between fact and fiction?
People were sad for me because they believed what I wrote was, to some extent at least, the truth. They believed that the unnamed characters in the story were me and an ex-girlfriend.
How does one come to terms with this as a writer of fiction?
It’s something I wrestle with a lot. How can I distance myself from my characters? If I write a sex scene am I doomed to offend everyone I’ve ever canoodled with? If I write a story about adultery will that sow seeds of doubt in Emma’s mind? If I write about dysfunctional families will my parents be heartbroken? If I write about worthless layabouts, will my work colleagues take offense?
Everything I write is a product of my thoughts, feelings and experiences. That doesn’t make any of it true. It doesn’t make the characters me.
Still, I can’t help feeling someone’s bound to get hurt.