The story that revealed the problem
I’ve been thinking about a story I wanted to write concerning a time in my teens when I was in a band -- a country-rock band. Working on this story made me finally realize how easy it could be for someone to recognize themselves or a loved one in my stories. The band consisted of one of my cousins, his best friend and his best friend’s brother, with others occasionally joining us for short periods of time. My role was rhythm guitarist and backup singer. I sang harmonies and doubled the lead vocal to give our lead singer a fuller sound. I was a lousy guitarist. I was a fair singer. I was the only one in the group who could sing harmony. And the combination of my on-pitch voice with the lead singers more raw delivery of the lyric proved to be an interesting combination.
But I wasn’t satisfied.
There was another part that I wanted to play in that group: singer-songwriter. My songs weren’t very good, nothing compared to the hits we covered. But I didn’t know that. So the low quality of my songs did not stop me from trying to get the guys to play some of them and let me sing the lead vocal. We did that a few times and got a fair response from our beer-drinking audiences. But the rest of the group did not think it was a good idea to play a lot of my songs and we eventually stop playing them at all. That cause me a lot of frustration. I really wanted to write about that frustration and all the feelings that went with it in a story for When I Was Donnie. I even contemplated fabricating more success in my efforts but decided that would push reality too far.
The likelihood of my book becoming popular enough to reach the attention of a person behind one of my original characters is quite slim. I know that. But it really doesn’t change anything for me. Someone from my past may stumble over the book on-line. Or, success, the one thing I should be working toward, would make the thing I fear more likely. It would be especially easy to recognize the real story behind my band experience. If someone from the old group saw this particular story they would immediately know the story was inspired by my memories of our band, especially if the band members in my story were my cousin, his friend, his friend’s brother and me. That meant I would have to be careful about how I characterized the other members.
So I decided to create a fictional group where I would be faced with a similarly frustrating personal situation weaved into a story fraught with conflict. That would permit me to characterize my fellow band members in ways to make the story more interesting. And it would let me deal with the annoying part of that old memory. This idea inspired lots of possible scenes and scenarios. I felt excited by the possibilities. Would it still be close enough to reality to fit the guidelines I have given myself for the book? Maybe, maybe not.
In real life the drummer was also lead singer. The drummer’s brother was the lead guitarist. In my new story the lead singer would also be the lead guitarist. He would have an extraordinary ego and be neither a good guitarist nor a good singer. That would help justify my desire to get the band to do my songs. All the band members would be people from another school, no one from my family or my small group of friends. Personalities and music skills would be totally fabricated.
So I began to think about a rough draft of the story for my fictional group. I spent two or three days on the story, trying to make headway with a first draft. I could not make it work. There was no way to disguise what I was doing. I was in a particular band during a particular period of my life and these fictional characters could be seen to represent those band members. If the drummer or lead guitarist from the old group were to read the story, they could see the connection I was trying to disguise and take offense at my characterization of the story’s lead singer/guitarist, especially if my characterization of this fictional person was as extreme as I intended for it to be. The lack of similarity between my fictional character and those two real people would not make any difference. The guys could make the connection and find it offensive.
I finally came to understand that, no matter what story I wrote or who the made-up characters might be, if the plot included me as a teenager in a band, those guys, if they ever read it, would believe the story was about them. And how would I be able to refute their point?
This revelation made me think back through the other stories. There was no way to take a real story, stay true to the spirit of the story, and rewrite that story in a way that would never reflect back on the original people. I’m not clever enough to make that happen. And I’m not prepared to take a chance on hurting someone or getting sued by someone.