I cancelled my favorite project
I have decided to stop work on my When I Was Donnie project. I’ve thought on this, weighed the pros and cons, reflected on the reasons I began this effort, reflected on the significance of another failed writing project, and reflected on how the cancellation may affect those who read my work. My decision comes with regret … but also with a sigh of relief.
This was to be my on-line book of short stories about my first 21 years, including my childhood as the son of a sharecropper and my year in Vietnam as a combat infantryman, a year that resulted in my life-long struggle with PTSD. The stories were inspired by real events but were not a memoir.
Something about the project has been bothering me for a while. I’ve been working on When I Was Donnie all of 2015. Beforehand, I spent days thinking through the issues and possibilities associated with the project but my mind chose to ignore and deny what eventually became obvious. I’ve posted seven stories. I have rough drafts for five more and ideas for two or three beyond that. I’ve already committed a lot of time to this work. It has been important to me. I found enlightenment and pleasure in wandering back through my first 21 years and remembering interesting situations that might make good stories.
It was valuable to think back on those days and contemplate how my “Donnie” past may have shaped my “Don” future. But there was a problem that always gnawed at me: the characters in my stories were initially real people -- family and friends and other acquaintances from my life. I’ve lost touch with most of those people and doubt I’ll ever see them again. But my stories reveal parts of their character and their lives they might not appreciate seeing in print. And though I have changed the names and, to an extent, changed the circumstances under which I knew those people, anyone with a memory which includes me in their past might easily determine who and what I’m writing about, and take offense at something in my stories, especially the exaggerated elements I fabricated to make the stories more interesting.
In fact, it’s quite possible they might do more than just take offense; they might decide to sue me. If they are angered and offended, if their lives become damaged -- real or imagined -- or have the potential for becoming damaged by something I wrote, I could find myself embroiled in never-ending squabbles and, quite possibly, I could find myself needing a lawyer. It would not matter how much money I may have made on the book, or whether or not I made any money at all. If my writing proved to be damaging to someone portrayed in the book, any penalty to be paid would be based on the perceived damage and not on my income from the book. My meager financial condition could become dire. My propensity toward anxiety and depression could send me back into those dark days, those dark years, that almost cost me my life not so long ago.
The insurmountable problem I face is hiding the true identity of the people on which my story characters were based. Naïvely, I thought I'd be able to do that without losing the spirit of the life I lived those first 21 years. But it proved to be a fantasy … just a foolhardy notion that permitted me to continue on toward my goal of a completed book of short stories. I still think the idea is a good one, minus the potential hurt feelings and lawsuits. I still think I could've made a fairly decent book out of it. I would first do a quasi-final version and post it online, which I've done with seven stories so far. Once all the stories were completed and posted on-line, I would begin rewriting again, using skills and knowledge I developed along the way. After that, I would present the manuscript to an editor for hire, pay his fee, review his advice and then finish the book. I thought all of that effort would surely result in a book worth reading. And it may well have. There may come a day when my concerns will be addressed and I can resurrect the project. But that doesn’t seem likely.
I started thinking more seriously about how thinly veiled my story characters were from the real people behind those characters. And I realized it was possible that a person I once knew, or someone from their family, might become very hurt over something that I said about them or their family member, especially if the person I knew was already deceased, which some of them are. Some characterizations are exaggerations; much of the action and almost all of the dialog is fabricated. But an affected reader would not be thinking about that: they would be thinking about how I’m characterizing them or their family member in my short story.
I can only imagine how I would feel if I came across a story, even a true and unexaggerated story, that put me in a bad light or revealed a part of my past I had chosen to never speak of or think about. Even without the threat of a lawsuit, if I became aware I had hurt someone in that way, from that point forward I would have feelings of guilt that I might never be able to shed. I already have enough emotional and psychological problems without adding to them.
There are other things I can write about.