Deb Rachel Gets Real

MWF Seeking BFF, by Rachel BertscheWriting non-fiction is an interesting beast. Most of the time, I’d venture that my job is a bit easier than that of a novelist. I don’t have to dream up complex stories from my imagination. I’m not required to keep straight the details of fictional families. It’s not my job to create the perfect ending. I deal in truths, telling what happened, plain and simple.

And yet, because I write memoirs, the people I write about are real. I can’t hide behind a veil of fiction. The characters’ names might be changed, but they knew who they are.

This is, in my opinion, the hardest aspect of writing a memoir. You feel an obligation to honestly and accurately portray real-life people but–here’s the kicker!–you want to do it in a way that doesn’t offend them. An easy task if the person is your lifelong bestie. Less so if you’re just not that into her.

I went on a few less-than-stellar dates during my year of friending. There were 52 outings, after all. You can’t expect them all to be winners. In each case, nothing was wrong with my dinner mate, per se. We just didn’t click. And those dinner dates were the scenes in MWF Seeking BFF that were the hardest to write.

While writing MWF, my rule of thumb was that I was allowed (encouraged!) to make fun of myself, but not of other people. My book is meant to be funny, but not mean-spirited. So when I sat down to write the scene of a very awkward first friend-date, I had a tough go of it. I wanted to communicate what the dinner date felt like from my end–including the uncomfortable realization that we had not one thing in common–without defaulting to “she was weird.” Because, well, maybe I was the weirdo.

So, yeah. As a memoirist (oooh! I’m a memoirist! I’ve never said that before…) the hardest scenes are those where you open up about someone you might not particularly like. Because that person is out there, and will likely be reading your book. Her mother might be reading, too, or even her husband. And defaulting to mocking or bashing said real-live person doesn’t mean you’re a braver or funnier author. It means you took the easy way out.

How do you handle writing about real people in your work? What if the subject is someone you don’t like?

13 Replies to “Deb Rachel Gets Real”

  1. That’s exactly why I won’t write any kind of a memoir — it’s too difficult (for me) to stick to the truth while remaining nice. Or nice enough. *grin* Heck, it’s tough just writing honest-yet-amusing blog posts without alienating my loved ones. Which is why I only promise 98% truthfulness on my blog. 😉

    I can’t wait to read MWF SEEKING BFF! Because I just know you nailed it. 🙂

    1. Thanks LInda. Yeah, I think the trick is just to be sure to stick to honesty without letting judgement cloud you too much. That said, sometimes your truth and someone else’s truth are just different. So I had to tell my husband when he took issue with how I described our big fight!

  2. The key to me is that even if my characters aren’t real people, they are meant to represent real people – they’ve got human qualities that make them wonderful, and ones that make them not so wonderful. If I’m making fun of them or treating them badly, I’m not being respectful.

    It is a finer line in memoir – I’m thinking of Rachel Machacek’s The Science of Single, where she had to present the ridiculousness of the situations she found herself in (and sometimes that ridiculousness was due to the behavior of both participants – including her!) without getting mean. I don’t know how she did it, but I think she did.

  3. Even in fiction I can’t seem to be too awfully mean with characters–with exception of course. But even then, I have this knee-jerk response to wanting to give them respect (much like Eleanor said) and to offer them opportunities for redemption.

    As I am almost finished MWF now I can absolutely say that Rachel does an amazing job of offering rich and well-rounded descriptions of her characters without ever poking fun. In fact, the only person she ever pokes fun at is herself (in ways we can all relate to!) as she takes this amazing journey–which makes her that much more lovable and someone we can’t help but root for!

    1. Awww thanks Erika. I’m so glad you like it. I’m always happy to poke fun at myself — i find myself doing some ridiculous things sometimes. Someone once said to me “only you and Mary Tyler Moore…..” I don’t know how I get myself into these things….

      Thank you thank you thank you for reading and for your kind words!

  4. I read somewhere that even one’s worst character should have at least one redeeming quality. There are very few people who don’t possess at least one. I once told my four-out-of-five children who are educators, “When you have a student and you can’t find at least one redeeming quality, it’s time to stop teaching, because you must reach them all.”

  5. Sorry for the late post. I honestly cannot relate to the fiction writers this week. I do not have an imagination. I never have. So I cannot even conjure up what I would write about.

    Non-fiction, on the other hand, is a different story. I have found it particularly difficult to get all of the details correct. Did he bite my hand or hit me in the face? I’m sure the parents remember so I want to make sure I get it right.

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