I never leave the apartment without my writing notebook. I'm a freelance writer, author and MFA student. My livelihood, and sanity, is contingent upon the ability to scribble down seemingly arbitrary observations and thoughts onto a sheet of paper and making sense of them later. This, as far as I'm concerned, is the sole reason why I call myself a writer.
The compulsive need I feel to document the world around me as it occurs in real time has angered and annoyed many of my loved ones. On more than one occasion, I've been told: "I have to watch what I say around you because it may end up in one of your stories."
I attended a wedding sometime ago where the priest forgot the last name of the couple he was marrying. It was at the beginning of the ceremony and the entire church held its breath until finally someone shouted out the last name. No one laughed, but everyone knew it was funny. It was a situation so incredibly unique that it made the ceremony a one of a kind experience for me.
So I jotted down the particulars in my notebook, noting how even the bride and groom laughed as the priest stumbled over himself trying to remember their last name. As I wrote, my boyfriend Jeff gripped my wrist and shook his head in disapproval. "Don't you dare write that down," he whispered.
"Why," I asked him later at the reception. "Everyone had a good sense of humor about it."
"Because no one wants to remember that."
The bride and groom are dear friends of ours and are the kind of New York power couple you are proud to know. If anyone has a sense of humor, it's them. They have something many of us don't have and that's called confidence. I argued this to Jeff; however, he did not see my point.
"Just promise me you won't write about that, Paul."
Similarly when I was an editorial intern for Wizard magazine back in 2007, I had to cover a panel featuring comic book writer Brian K. Vaughan at New York Comic Con. The panel was uneventful, with the same pre-rehearsed marketing copy meant to create hype among the fan base but deliver no real substance. During the Q&A, a man rose from his seat, and began yelling at Vaughan over the characters in his work. The man's yelling was so intense that he had to be removed from the room. Everyone cheered as the man was escorted out, and Vaughn jokingly asked, "Anyone seen my number one fan lately?"
The situation brought everyone at the panel together, and we felt a rapport with Vaughn. And, for the record, Vaughn couldn't have been more professional and charming about the entire ordeal.
I included the altercation in my write up of the panel, noting the sense of comradery in the room after the angry man was removed.
"The vibe in the room changed after the altercation," I originally wrote. "And for the first time during comic con, I felt I got to know a creator firsthand, and witness how wrongfully angry some fans can become."
When I got back to the press room my editor, in a very condescending tone, questioned why I included something like that in my write up.
I had no excuse to offer my editor other than that's what happened. I was assigned to document the panel and I did just that. The altercation made the panel far more interesting and the end result was a shared moment between a creator and his fans.
"Our readers are suppose to feel like they were there," I reasoned.
My editor reasoned otherwise, offering no explanation why it wasn't kosher to include the altercation, and deleted it from my story.
The adult in me understands the need for "edits" in the two stories I just outlined for you. However, the writer in me does not. In the same way it would be fraud to ask an accountant to cook the books or encourage a witness to lie under oath, deliberately omitting facts calls into question my morality as a writer.
Let's be clear about a few things. I don't write for the money. When I tell people I'm a writer, they inevitably ask if I want to write the next great American novel or a revealing expose for The New York Times. The answer is no. I do not write for profit or fame. I write because I want to tell stories, and want to tell them as truthfully and honestly as I can.
Writers are trained to be watchdogs. Our job is to observe and alert. We pray for objectivity and seek the truth. Nothing more. And while I understand "the truth" is subjective, the facts are not. Facts are concrete, and we use them as the foundation to build our story. Things happen and they happen for a reason. What that reason ultimately is remains nebulous (or for the fiction writers to make sense of). But I'll tell you something. I do not remember the weddings that went off without a hitch nor can I recall the comic book panels that read off a script. For me, beauty is in the candor.
Of course writing about events is different from writing about people. I've lost friendships because I've written about loved ones. Some were ferociously angry even though I never said anything negative about them in the essay. You can't help how a subject reacts to your story, but even so, it hurts when they don't understand you wrote about them because they meant something to you.
I came across an interview with Joan Didion (author of The Year of Magical Thinking) where she said writers are always selling other people out:
If you are doing a piece about somebody, even if you admire them tremendously and express that in the piece, express that admiration, if they're not used to being written about -- this doesn't hold true of public figures -- but if they're civilians, they're not used to seeing themselves through other people's eyes. So you will always see them from a slightly different angle than they see themselves, and they feel a little betrayed by that.
I couldn't agree more with Ms. Didion. But I'll take her words a step further. As writers, we ultimately sell ourselves out. When I find the courage to write about my family, friends or some unassuming stranger, I'm not revealing a truth about them. I am revealing a truth about myself.