Monday, April 27, 2009

Pandora's Box -- Writing What You Know All Too Well

Write what you know. If you've done a fair share of writing, you've heard this expression. Heck, even if you're entirely new to writing you've probably learned this. It's an innate gut thing write what's familiar, what we've studied and what we're confident writing about.

Here's where the predicament comes in. Family secrets. What do we do about sharing family secrets? I have some guidelines that I go by. I'll reveal those later, but for now let's open up this box and see what we come up with.

We all have skeletons in our closets. Any one person could readily gather some pretty fierce material by studying and being around certain family members. We all have it within our potential to rip the masks off our family secrets every time we sit down to type at the keyboard. It is within our power. It can even be seen as a gift, something of our own Pandora's box.

Pandora, a Greek mythological female figure decided, whether out of malicious intent or sheer curiosity, to open the box that released and unveiled all of the evils of mankind. Ouch. Not good. Not good at all Pandora.

But are we much different if we intentionally choose to write about those in our lives and describe them in exact detail, shredding their character, tossing their weaknesses on the page as easily as rolling dice?

Here are my thoughts. Families are messy. We all know this. If you really feel you must divulge deep dark family secrets (that are more incriminating to others than they'd be to yourself) I suggest two things:

  1. Ask for the blessing. Go to whomever you plan to write about and ask about their comfort level. If they are adamant about your not writing about them, don't--at least not for publication. It's not worth it. It's not worth damaging relationships in order to have a supremely published piece of gritty non-fiction. There are millions of journals out there where you can let the gunk out.

  2. You've heard the saying, "Turn that frown upside down." Well do that but instead, turn non-fiction into fiction. Change details, add subtle stand-outs that don't resemble loved ones. Be's what writers do! Write what you know, but know it differently. (*Disclaimer -- The books I'm working on don't represent anyone from my family. The characters aren't you...if anyone from my family is reading this. :D )

Finally, an important point about Pandora. Hope is still in the box. She left it in there. That's the good stuff. We can open up our own boxes when we write, letting Hope fly out onto the page and turn our history, our past filled with pain, tragedy and skeletal bones into something beautiful, original and free from condemnation or guilt.

This brings me to Ezekiel 37. If you've never read through the Bible...I'm telling you it's filled with highly creative stuff --stuff beyond the imagination. Anyway, check out Ezekiel. The bones, you know the ones I was talking about...those skeletons...God makes them walk! Here's a teaser before I go:

"This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life..." Ezekiel 37:5

Write Freely and Often!

Also, I stopped by here today to write a little something. Feel free to check it out.


  1. I like your idea about using the family "secrets" but changing/fictionalizing them enough that we won't hurt those closest to us. We all have pains from our pasts, even our present. God can bring life to our skeletons! But then we have to make sure we don't selfishly profit from the skeletons of others. Thanks, Wendy! Great thoughts as usual!

  2. Good advice, I think, especially this:

    "Ask for the blessing. Go to whomever you plan to write about and ask about their comfort level. If they are adamant about your not writing about them, don't..."

    As a longtime news reporter, I ran into numerous situations where -- even if people did give the blessing -- they changed their mind after seeing it on the front page (even if the information was entirely factual). I can't imagine what that scenario might look like if no permission was granted in the first place. Yikes!

    Loved your look-alike post (below) as well.

    Great bloggin' ...

  3. LOVED this post! I have been struggling with this issue for a while now (my mother is super private) and you give some great advice. I am going to check out that Bible passage today as well!

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