Sunday, June 12, 2016

Blurring the Lines of Fiction and Reality: When It's Okay and Not Okay

When It's Okay to Blur the Lines of Fiction and Reality:

1. When you are producing your own works of fiction. It's fine to use all of the real material you want in your work. It's fine to write an entirely true story and present it as fictional. I think it's also okay to apply some poetic license when you're presenting stories as true, as long as they are in the form of a creative work, such as a memoir or personal essay, as opposed to embellishing the truth when you are talking to people directly.

2. When you want to use fictional works to assess whether you can trust a person about a real-life issue. For example, if you want to share with someone that you have an anxiety disorder, but you are not sure how they will react, so you write a fictional story about a character who experiences the same anxiety disorder as you do, and see how they react to the story. That's fine. It's perfectly fine to use fiction to assess how someone might react to you in real life, to avoid getting hurt. This is also a good way to bring up topics that you want to discuss with someone but are scared to mention. If someone is validating toward your fictional character's experience, you can segue into the fact that it's based on your real experience.

[If you really want to assess how someone will react to something without them knowing that it's about you, it's actually more effective if you can see how a person reacts to something not written by you - for instance, a blog post or article written by someone else who has an anxiety disorder similar to yours. This is more effective because people are often hesitant to say what they really think of your writing because they don't want to to hurt your feelings, so they are more likely to be honest with you about someone else's work.

Even more effective than actually sharing someone else's work with them directly would be observing how the person reacts to someone else's blog post on an anxiety disorder when you aren't the one who shared the post.]

When It's Not Okay to Blur the Lines of Fiction and Reality:

1. When you assume that something presented as fiction is true, especially when it could get someone into trouble.

If you truly suspect that someone is using a fictional story to communicate real information to you, such as a close friend sharing a fictional story about a character who has depression when you have a feeling that your friend might also have depression, the best thing you can do is validate the character in the story, say something like, "Wow, I learned a lot about depression from reading your story. What Anna went through was really hard," and let your friend decide if they want to share anything with you.

But in cases where someone has to share the story with you because you are their writing teacher, you should not be assuming that the student necessarily is trying to share true information with you. It is absolutely NOT OKAY to report anything or get anyone into trouble for something that they presented as fiction, no matter much you suspect that it might be real.

2. When you are a writing teacher and a student comes to you with a non-writing problem. Everything isn't about writing. Writing a story or poem is not the solution to every problem. If you were a math teacher and a student came to talk to you because their grandfather died or their parents were getting a divorce or they were being bullied in school, you would (hopefully!) not try to convert the conversation back to something math-related. You would understand that the student was coming to you because they trust you, not because their problem has anything to do with math.

But for some reason, writing teachers (not all of them, but several that I've met), feel the need to turn everything into a writing project. When I have gone to my writing professors with personal problems because they seemed understanding and I trusted them, they turned everything I said into a writing project. Now, it would be bad enough if their response was, "Let's see how we can convert these feelings into a story/poem." But this was worse. They actually started talking to me about how I *shouldn't* be putting these feelings into my writing because they didn't belong there. Just to be clear, I didn't even start the conversation about writing - I was telling them about REAL problems, seeking REAL support, which, by the way, is not the same as writing advice. In addition to getting zero real support, I had all my channels blocked by being told I couldn't write about what mattered to me, then these professors shifted the conversation from my personal crisis to how I could get better at writing. Yes, I'm serious. This happened every single time.

The other day, I was noticing how nice it is not be surrounded by writing professors, to be around people who understand that every situation isn't about writing.

If you are a writing teacher you need to know that:
1. Everyone has the right to tell their story and use whatever real inspirations they want in their writing. You have absolutely no business telling anyone what real life events they can and can't use. That's super invasive and not okay.
2. You don't have the right to assume anything fictional is real and get anyone into trouble over it.
3. Your students should be able to talk to you as a human being who cares about them and not just as their writing teacher. Don't convert every personal conversation a student has with you into a writing issue, unless your student specifically tells you that they want to write about something.

And keep in mind that good writing is effective writing. If your student hates their new stepparent and wants to write a story about how horrible that person is, a "good story" would be one which makes the reader feel their pain, makes the reader angry, and makes the reader hate this person as much as they do. THAT is good writing. Teaching students to "edit" the story in a way that cuts the stepparent more slack and paints them in more of a positive light is invalidating and is horrible writing advice, and you shouldn't get to keep your job as a writing teacher if that's the kind of advice you're going to give.

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