When my debut novel came out, I had two firsts—a work of published fiction—and a lawsuit. I had never thought about lawsuits before. I incorporated everything and everyone I knew or imagined into my fiction, spinning them into characters. At first, to my surprise, most people didn’t know they were any part of my stories. I was sure my mom would be delighted that I used a story in my novel that she had told me a million times over: how at 19, she had been jilted at the altar by the man she thought she loved, marrying a brute on the rebound. She was later visited by her ex, who brought his wife with him, taking my mom aside to whisper to her that he had made a mistake. “It’s really lovely you wrote that,” she told me, “but that character is not anything like me at all. Plus, that never really happened that way.” My mother might not have recognized herself in my pages, but another family—one I didn’t know—did. A week after my first novel came out, I received a letter from a lawyer. A family, who lived in Pittsburgh, where I was living at the time, just happened to share the same (very common) names I had given my characters, along with the same dramatic conflict. They were suing me for invasion of privacy. I called my publisher, shocked. “I want to countersue.” I cried. “Even if I did know them, which I don’t—how could they imagine I’d be stupid enough to use their names and their situation?” There was a funny silence and then the publisher said, “We’re changing the names in the paperback. We don’t want to hold up the book because of some lawsuit.” I was upset. These people were claiming that I had stolen their life when I hadn’t! And worse, I had to change the names because of them and only then was the lawsuit dropped. But that didn’t squelch my yearning to write about what mattered to me. I started publishing personal essays, and I worried about how things might get more personal without a character to hide behind. I was writing about my life, I was laying myself bare—how I felt, how I hurt, and sometimes how I healed. When I was asked to write an essay about food issues for an anthology, I wrote about a long-gone ex who monitored my food intake until I was down to 95 pounds, who clouded my vision so I couldn’t see how controlled I was. Of course I knew enough not to use his name, his physical description, or his job, but even so, two weeks after the anthology was published, I got a call from the publisher’s lawyer. Somehow my ex, who I hadn’t seen in years, had read the essay. Though he insisted he had never done a single thing I had mentioned in the essay, he still recognized himself. And he wanted to sue. “His wife is very upset,” the lawyer told me. “He said that’s why he called. Did you ever tell him you were writing about him?” “Never,” I said. “Okay, good,” the lawyer said, “then I can make him go away.” So was that the key, I wondered? You had to ask people before you wrote about them, even if you disguised them? When I was asked to write an essay for an anthology about infidelity, I played it safe. I asked permission. I was writing about one long, hot brutal summer when my first husband was cheating on me. His sister, who was also my best friend, was orchestrating his trysts without my knowing, and her shrink was stalking her. She not only okayed the piece, she enthusiastically provided extra details. She was fine when my piece was reprinted in a major magazine, fine when it landed me on the Today Show, but when I got a movie option, she immediately threatened me with a lawsuit. I was gobsmacked. “But you gave permission!” I insisted. “And it’s my point of view of what happened!” I had to hire a lawyer from The Author’s Guild who assured me that because she had known about the story for so long, because it had been out there, she had no recourse. And he wrote a polite letter to her to tell her so. I was fed up and frightened by lawsuits. So I gave up personal essays for a while and wrote another novel. Set in 1969 and 1970, it began to morph into a lot of things. I wrote about my mom falling in real reciprocated love for the first time, at 93. Like most writers, what I think I am writing about often u-turns into what I need to write about, and I began adding in a new character, exploring a really important relationship in my life that had become troubled over the years. I had kept trying to fix her, to help her, but the more I did, the worse things got for both of us. I finally realized that it wasn’t my job to change anyone, let alone someone I loved, and that sometimes you just have to let people be. I meant part of the novel as a love letter to her, and when the novel came out, I said so on NPR—without mentioning names, of course. The email came almost immediately and it was spikey with threats. She recognized herself, and so had a friend of hers. And she said she could prove it. She had, she said, already spoken to a lawyer, and she was going to sue for defamation and invasion of privacy. It didn’t matter that I took the blame for my persistence in trying to change her. “You’re dead to me,” she said flatly. By now, I was used to talking to lawyers and I knew I had to contact mine. “It’s sticky business,” my lawyer said. “People can sue for anything they want, but no reputable lawyer will take on a case like this, at least not without considerable money, plus anything you said was only your opinion, and not fact, and you can’t sue for that. I’d just let it go. I can write a letter to her, but it might make things worse.” “They already are worse,” I said. “She won’t sue,” he assured me. And she hasn’t. Why didn’t I learn my lesson with my first lawsuit? Because it’s a writer’s nature to keep digging into peoples’ lives, to be curious. And the truth is that whether I am writing about a character or myself or a living person, the story always comes from a deep place within. I’m not trying to hurt, expose or defame anyone. Instead, I’m trying to figure things out—to make sense of why I (or anyone else) couldn’t and wouldn’t leave an emotionally abusive boyfriend, why I (or anyone else) felt I had to rescue someone who not only resented my help, but was furious that I thought she needed any. It has nothing to do with revenge, and everything to do with revelation, with connecting to some reader who might say, gratefully, “Oh, thank you for writing about this scary/terrifying/wrenching topic, because Me, too. Me, too. Me, too.” Image Credit: Public Domain Photos.
I love mentoring writers. First, because finding the fault lines in someone else’s work actually makes it a little easier to find the cracks in my own. Second, it actually makes me feel smart, like I actually might, to my great surprise, know something about writing, which helps during those countless days when I wonder if going to dental school might have been a better career path. I often stay friendly with the writers I work with, but sometimes, they get good enough to get agents, and then book deals, and then they move on, and I feel that I’ve done my job. Until one day I was hired by a new writer. Then, to my surprise, I became the one being mentored. Let’s go back ten years. I was teaching an online novel writing class at UCLA, something I’ve been happily doing for a decade. While most of my students were pretty good writers and I loved them, I was always hoping for that book that was going to rob me of sleep, that would obsess me to the point where I couldn't do anything else but read. Gina came to my class with a novel that was about a young actress who decides to be a writer. It was light, it was fun, and I really don’t know how much I helped her back then, or what I could do for her other than tell her it was a good first effort and to keep writing. She came back the second year and instead of another light novel, she turned in the first pages of a novel that was so darkly brilliant that for a moment, I couldn’t catch my breath. I had never done this before, but I picked up the phone and called her. I told her that her novel had gotten to me and that I wanted to work one-on-one with her on it, when she felt she was ready. “Are you kidding?” she said. She took more classes, and when she got her creative writing certificate at UCLA, she wanted to stay in touch. For the first year, we just worked on her novel, and every time I read more of it, I became more invested, while staying as professional and impartial as I could be. It made me feel good to help her, to share everything I knew, not just about books, but about agents, publication, and so on. I loved the book and believed in it, but maybe I also really liked being in control, being the expert. She got an agent instantly, but it turned out to be the wrong agent. They were working to make the characters more likable, and the book more commercial, and then she realized the fit wasn’t right. “Trust your gut,” I told her. “Be brave and take back the manuscript and find the right agent.” She found another one right away. They were sure the book would be sold in an auction, but instead, she got back comments that the writing was brilliant, the story incredible, but that because it straddled commercial and literary fiction, they weren’t sure how to market it. Until, of course, it sold. So now we were colleagues. Well, sort of. There wasn’t anything more I could do for Gina. But then I was having trouble with my own work, and the readers I had depended on were flagging. One was too busy now with her own work. The other had gotten sick. And the third’s comments just didn’t make any sense to me anymore, but seemed almost barbed, aimed to hurt. I complained about it to Gina and then I stumbled, trying to figure out what to do. I was thinking up all sorts of plans when she interrupted. “I can look at some pages,” Gina said. I wasn’t sure how to respond. I mean, wasn’t I the expert? Wasn’t I ten years older? But I couldn’t work, and I was desperate to figure out my novel, so I took a chance and showed her a chapter. To my shock, her comments were so on target, so helpful, I felt a huge rush of relief, and of hope. She had noticed things I never would have -- how I could tighten a scene by getting rid of an extraneous character. Why a character shouldn’t just do a bad thing, but I should push it, and have him do something worse. I realized that I could learn something from her. She was the teacher now, mentoring me. And I grateful for it. Working with someone I had previous mentored opened us up to something even better -- something I never expected: one of the most important friendships I have. We’d talk about our work on video and then suddenly we’d be talking about our kids, or about our feelings or about food. Sharing work is really like sharing your soul. My erstwhile mentee somehow managed to know what I needed to do before I knew myself. I didn’t think twice when Gina, previously an actress, now wanted to write a screenplay of essay I had written. Of course, I said yes. Of course, Hollywood and TV being an impenetrable fortress, nothing happened with it, and in frustration, I said, “We should do something original ourselves.” I didn’t mean it. I never considered it. Until I did. “We should,” Gina said. We looked at each other from the video screen. I’ve worked with writing partners before, and it’s always not worked out. I tend to be a speed demon and obsessive, and my first partner was slow and methodical. I want to delve into character and my second partner was madly in love with plot. But this time, we both could bring something to a joint project. We were each mentoring a partnership now. We were learning together that we could help each other revise in the other’s voice and style, without forcing our style on one other. Maybe we both realized it was a safe place to take risks. We wrote a pilot, and we got a film agent who loved it and sent us notes. Notes! But instead of being happy, I suddenly felt sick, and it took me a while to figure out why. Our balance of power had shifted yet again. Wasn’t the idea for this pilot Gina’s? Weren’t most of the great lines Gina’s as well? I had mentored her and then she had mentored me, and now I felt that I was her slightly dragging coat tail on this project. What if it hurt our friendship? That meant more to me than the pilot. So, I called her, hesitant. “Look,” I said. “I think the pilot is really your project. I think you wrote most of it. I think you need to take full credit.” For a moment, there was nothing but silence. I braced for her assent, but instead, Gina laughed. “I was about to call you and say the same thing,” she said.
In high school, I used to look forward to study hall because the girl who sat in front of me would spend the whole time gossiping and laughing with me. She was smart and funny and, while I was dreaming of college and traveling and dozens of dramatic relationships, she actually had a fiancé. I was astounded when she told me that he was in his thirties, and just a little controlling. “But I’m sure it’s all going to work out,” she said. The year we graduated, I lost track of her, busy with college and drugs, and falling in and out of love. But then I ran into old friends and I heard the news. My high school friend had decided that she wanted to go to college. She wanted to be free, so she broke up with her fiancé. She told him all that, on Valentine’s Day, and he quietly left, then came back an hour later and stabbed her 45 times. When I heard that, I was haunted. I needed to make sense of it; I thought I could write her story, but every time I tried, I got stuck. Why didn’t she know that he could be violent? And if she did know, why did she stay? Why didn’t she tell someone? I couldn’t figure it out. And then, ten years later, my fiancé died very suddenly of a heart attack, two weeks before our wedding. My life cracked open. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t read or write, and I once cried so hard in my apartment that a neighbor called the police to make sure I was all right. I wasn’t. I got it in my head that the only thing that might save me was to throw myself into another relationship, to be really busy. “Worst idea in the world,” my friends told me. But I did it anyway. My new boyfriend lived in the future. He was filled with plans of what we would do together, how we’d travel, how we’d someday have a baby -- all things I didn’t really want then because my heart was hollow. But I loved the idea of having a destination, of crowding my life with things that might push away my grief. He moved me into his apartment and began waking me in the middle of the night, whispering, “I love you. Marry me,” and he wouldn’t let me sleep until I said yes, my heart pounding because I knew I never would. He began monitoring what I ate because he thought I wasn’t skinny enough. He got rid of almost all of my black clothing without telling me. “You’d look gorgeous in pastels and ruffles,” he told me, “You’d be much more feminine.” He didn’t want me to see my friends and when I was overly friendly with his he accused me of wanting to sleep with them. Why did I stay? Because I knew if I left, the grief would come flooding back, and that seemed far worse. And my boyfriend never hit or yelled. If there was an insect in the house, he’d take it outside. His voice was always soft and gentle, his demands always prefaced with the words, “Honey, I’m telling you this because I love you.” I worried it over and over in my mind. He had no reason to be mean to me -- he loved me, he said -- so maybe he was right. I saw myself in the mirror and I did look a little fat, so I began to exercise more, to eat less. I fussed with a skirt and thought, maybe it wasn't short enough. Maybe he was right, too, about my wearing ruffles and pastels. So I stayed. One year, and then two. My mother came up and, stunned at how skinny I was, begged me to leave. My friend Marlise made a point of bringing me Cinnabons when we were working together; I ate every crumb and then felt guilty and wondered if he could tell I had stuffed myself when he saw me. And then I started to remember my high school friend, and suddenly, I began to be afraid. One day I went to work on my novel and, to my surprise, a part of it had been rewritten. My boyfriend, seeing my unease, told me that he had done it, that he thought I needed to be funnier. “But it’s mine,” I told him. “My work.” He looked at me, hurt. “Aren’t we the same person?” he said. “Isn’t what I want what you want?” I couldn’t answer because I no longer knew who I was. The thing that finally made me leave was my friend Jo, who lived in Santa Fe and wrote me almost every other day. He had been reading her emails, and he wasn’t happy with what she was saying about our relationship. I called her to ask her not to say anything personal in an email because he read them. “We can talk on the phone,” I said. I thought she’d support me, because she always did, but instead, she yelled at me. “Our friendship is based on the truth and I’m not censoring myself. What are you doing? Why are you with him? You have to get out.” I started to cry. When I got off the phone, I was trembling and terrified, but I went to find my boyfriend. “I’m leaving,” I said. “I don’t want to marry you. I want to be on my own.” And then, in that soft quiet voice, he said, “Honey, you can go, I don’t want to be with you, either.” That’s when I knew how lucky I was. It took me a while to come back to myself. The grief came back harder than ever. But I worked through it with the help of a therapist. My friends took me out to eat. Have bread, they insisted. Order cake. My friend Jane made me come shopping with her but I didn’t know anymore what to choose. “Don’t think, just feel it,” Jane told me and when I drifted towards a short black dress, she told me I’d look great. My friend Linda let me stay at her place nights when I was most lonely. I began to write again. And I began to understand how and why my high school friend had been in that relationship so long. I began to feel sorry that I hadn’t known, that no one had been able to protect her. It took me a few years, but I fell in love and married a smart, creative man who makes me laugh, who told me I was beautiful, who nursed me through an illness. We talk about everything, and sometimes we raise our voices. But that sound, that truth, is so much better than than a hypnotic, quiet voice -- a voice tightening like a garrote. Image: The Return of Persephone, Wikipedia