Tuesday, August 30, 2011

On Having "Characters" Read Your Writing

Photo: camil tulcan
I've never shared my writing with those who appear in it (those "characters" who happen to be actual living people) in order to get their input before a piece is published. This isn't because I don't care about how these people feel. I just didn't really believe that the essays I sent out would actually be published.

Then earlier this year I was fortunate to have a couple of pieces published. Both of these essays portray my mother as a less than ideal mother-character, at least in any sort of traditional sense. So with some apprehension, I sent these pieces to my mother after they were already published. Luckily she loved them and had no objections to how she was portrayed.

Now I've been asked to submit an essay to a literary publication and the piece I want to send is again primarily about my mother. Only this one is much more revealing, centered on a period of time when she was going through intense emotional turmoil. When I told her about the opportunity and also the subject of my essay, her response was that she didn't even l like to think about that year.

And so, knowing that the piece could potentially be revealing of her in very painful ways, I decided to send it to her, not for permission, but to hear from her whether it feels respectful, kind, and accurate.

As I re-read the piece and made revisions, the knowledge that she would be reading it created a third presence in the text. Now it was not just me and an imagined reader, but her as another reader, one with a very powerful presence that threatened to become another author. This presence made the usually challenging revision process almost impossibly difficult.

However, I forced myself to stay at my desk and reread and edit through a several passes and as I reread it one last time, I found that I had somehow arrived at a new confidence with the piece and a certainty that it says exactly what I want it to say. While the essay itself is still not done, I found that by considering how it would be read by the central character I was forced to more fully own the writing, to take responsibility for it in a larger way than I had previously.

Now I've just sent the piece to my mother and I have no idea if she'll be hurt by it or feel validated and understood. I have no idea if the piece will be accepted by the magazine, or if it will ever be published. But those outcomes matter less than the experience of having written with that powerful force of a character as reader, to hear, value, and respect that imagined voice while still continuing to write from my vision and my experience.

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