Monday, November 23, 2009

Stephen Elliott: How to Write about Your Family

DC writer Paula Whyman organized an amazing event on Friday, hosting Stephen Elliott at a packed reading at Teaism. Stephen, who is on a wild, self-organized, nationwide tour of reading in people’s houses and at venues beyond the typical bookstore, read from his new book, The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder. He told us he was reading different parts of the book at each event (a nice trick, considering he will have been on the road for more than three months when the tour winds up). He’ll be touring until December 18, and if you have the chance to see him read, I call this a "must see."

If you’ve ever read his work, you know that it is incredibly intense and dark and honest: reading his autobiographical novel Happy Baby was a memorably wrenching experience (one of the most powerful books I've read, though I recommend it's that brutal). So I had to ask his advice on something that often comes up in my classes (okay, and in my own life, too), worrying about the reaction of family/friends when they read certain stories.

He gave a great answer, which I’ll paraphrase, since I was too mesmerized to think of taking notes:

First, don’t even worry about anyone’s reactions until the piece is going to be published. This is simply the wisest comment on the whole subject—obviously, the story can change in progress or not get written or be written but live only in a file drawer. He also noted that you shouldn’t imagine that the person you don’t want to read the piece won’t find it…they always, always do.

Disguise characters so that it’s not obvious who you’re writing about.

Then, he suggested that you let the pertinent person/people read it before the work is being published, rather than after publication. Inevitably, people will react in one way or another, but he said that people will not want to be the one who “stops” a book/story from being published. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but sure: who will come out and demand that you rip up that contract?

Writers need to own the story and own their actions. As he said, “I’m a writer, and this is what I do.” We write stories, and sometimes they’re not pretty and sometimes they involve people we know.

Finally, he noted that if you’re going to go into this sort of territory, you need to go in all the way. You can’t create art by going only halfway. That is, if you’re going to write the story about your father, write the truth of that whole story: don’t hold back.

Great, great advice…I plan to steal this all next time the subject comes up in one of my classes.

And here’s my fun fact about Stephen Elliott: this artsy writer exploring with bare honesty the dark, wrenching, difficult corners of his life, has a fantasy football team. !!! My mouth literally dropped open when I heard this, and I was even more charmed and mesmerized than I had been before (even though his quarterback is the annoying Tony Romo, from DC’s archrival Dallas Cowboys).

You can read more about the event and see some photos at Paula Whyman’s blog.

Stephen Elliott's essay "Why I Write."


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.