Permission to Write . . . About Them (May theme) by Claudia Mills

The hardest "Mother, May I?" question I wrestle with as an author is not asking mother, father, sister, husband, children if I may write at all, but whether and how I am allowed to write about them.

I write realistic fiction. I draw on my own childhood memories. I draw on my parenting experiences. How could I get those details that ring so true, those "you just can't make this stuff up?" moments, if I didn't borrow lavishly from real life? But in writing about my own real life, I inevitably write about the real lives of those whose lives are inextricably intertwined with mine. I can't write about me without writing about them. And don't they have some legitimate claim not to have their fears, foibles, and failures shared with readers? But if I don't write about the darker side of being human, how am I going to produce books anybody is going to want to read?

These are questions I struggle with every single writing day.

I don't have easy answers here, in case you were hoping to get some at last. But here are two guidelines I give myself.

I do disguise real life heavily; I almost never write anything "exactly the way it happened," if this were even possible. I do this not only for the sake of the human beings who provide my inspiration for a given scene, but to bring out the scene's narrative possibilities more fully: to make the story better and funnier than real life - and definitely with a more satisfying ending. I'm wary of any author who defends the improbable features of her story by protesting, "But that's how it really did happen."

I do try to be kind toward all my characters. I try to see "where they are coming from," to write about them in a way that is both "microscopically truthful," to quote Brenda Ueland, and as wise and charitable as I can be. I really do believe that if God were to write a book about any of us - and authors do assume a godlike stance toward their characters - we would end up as sympathetic and "relatable" characters, seen through God's loving eyes.

Luckily for me, I haven't been tempted to write a memoir yet, where I'd have to run afoul of my first guideline. I'm trying hard to honor the second one - though I just violated it in a current work-in-progress, giving such an unflattering portrait of my protagonist's father (actually, NOT based on anyone I know) that my editor rightly sent it back for a total re-do. And guess what the book is about? It's about a seventh grade writer who is wrestling with the question of whether and to what degree she can write about - and seek publication for - a story about her own family.

Maybe when twelve-year-old Autumn Granger figures this out in Write This Down, I'll know the answers, too.


  1. It's a delicate balance Claudia. Impossible not to have some of our lives in everything we write. I recently started writing my "autobiography". Not because I expect to share it with the world...but to tell the story to my children and grandchildren one day. It would probably be considered too tame and boring for fiction...a pleasant childhood being raised by imperfect but loving parents is not the stuff of popular literature. fuels my writing nonetheless. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


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