Monday, December 10, 2012

Take my life - please

ROSEMARY HARRIS: It's just occurred to me that some of our readers may not - ahem - be old enough to get the reference in the title of this post. An ancient comedian, totally corny, probably deceased by now, started many of his routines with the line "take my wife....please." (Henny Youngman, if you're interested.)

I've been thinking of my version of that line recently. Some of you may have noticed that I've been keeping a low profile on JR in the past few weeks. Over Thanksgiving I spent two weeks in Trinidad and Tobago helping to build a house with habitat for humanity. While I was there I received some rather startling news. A relative of mine had committed suicide.

Before you think me a heartless wench for even mentioning it on JR I should explain that we were not particularly close (he was married to my cousin and I hadn't even seen them for a number of years.) But there aren't many of us left so I don't have many relatives so I flew to the west coast to try to help.

There I learned that the manner and circumstances of his death were, to say the least, interesting. And they'd make the framework of a pretty good book. The inspiration only, of course, I'm not a journalist. And there may be lawsuits coming down the pike which I wouldn't even want to go near.

Ordinarily I'd never dream of using the personal tragedy of someone close to me as fodder for a novel, but - here's the catch - not only do I think the widow wouldn't mind, I kind of think she'd like it. And might consider it cathartic. The more I learned about their marriage the more I realized they weren't the golden couple I'd thought they were.

Dare I go for it? What do you JR readers and writers think? 

Ah,dear Ro. Welcome home, and we are thinking of you. And we celebrated your birthday here at JR!

As for your question. Well, I'd say--be very very careful. Is there a legal issue? It'd be fiction. "Any resemblance to persons living or dead.." you know. Still, if in the novel, the wife is--portrayed in an unflattering way, she might be upset. On the other hand, if I read a story in the newspaper about a similar situation (whatever it is) and I didn't know the person, I might not be hesitant to use it as the nugget of a possible story.

I AM a journalist, and the touchstone I use is: Would I be okay if someone did it to me? But no one can make the decision but you.

I'm with Hank, I'd be wary. And it's all so fresh--I might be tempted to write down some of the details so you don't lose them. And then let it alone for a while. Chances are, some of that experience will feed into a book at some point. It almost all does, doesn't it?

Whether we intend it or not... Hallie had an experience along these lines early in her writing, I'm sure she'll have wise things to say...

Oh, Ro. How painfully sad. It's wonderful that you were able to go and be supportive.

Lawsuits in the offing? Prominent couple who are also your family? Yikes. As Lucy says, I went down a road like that once and, for me at least, it was a long way to an ugly dead end. Fortunately it was at the beginning of my writing career and I learned a lot about writing human drama. But I lost a few years to the effort and letting go was awful at the end.

Having said that, inspiration is pure gold, and real life is full of rich detail and wonderfully complicated emotions. If you're inspired why not pick up just a tiny thread of this to weave into a story populated with made-up characters. At the end, hopefully you'll still be able to say with the utmost confidence: This is a work of fiction.

I agree with all of the above words of wisdom. Write down all the details, all the emotions, impressions etc and if you decide later to put it into a book remove it from your family situation. Maybe make it historical or in another part of the world. You don't want to alienate your family, even if you're not close now. You only have one family, Ro

: We all steal from our own lives one way or another, but using something so recent and close to you will restrict you from really exploring the story in a truly fictional way, I think. Unconsciously, you will be making choices that are not based on what makes the best story.

My condolences to your cousin. I had a best friend commit suicide when I was 28, and it's really a very complicated grief. Even if you think your cousin wants you to write about it now, she may have a completely different take on it later. I'm with the crowd. Let it rest for now and percolate -for later.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Everything we experience is material, Ro. Sometimes I think writers are a bit like vampires, because we will ultimately use all our experiences, good and bad, and those of people close to us. But on this I agree with fellow Reds. I'd record the details, your emotions and impressions, then just let it stew in your subconscious for a while. Something amazing may come out of it that won't bear any obvious resemblance to the tragedy in your own family.

And so sorry about that. A close friend committed suicide a few years ago. It's a very difficult and complicated thing, even when it's someone not particularly close. My condolences to your cousin.

This is why I love the JRs. Not just good writing advice, but good living advice. I may write this story now and let it sit for a few years. Or forever. And the real story is still unfolding. Mine will go down a different path.

That's the great thing about inspiration, it just gets you out of the gate. It doesn't require you to follow it all the way through to the end. Have any true crimes inspired you lately?


  1. Rosemary, my sincerest sympathies to you and your family for this tragic loss. It’s hard to lose someone, doubly so under such heartbreaking circumstances.

    If I were trying to make this writing decision, I would agree with your fellow Jungle Red writers . . . jot down the details, the thoughts, the feelings you don’t want to lose, then let it sit until the time that you can look at it more dispassionately . . . . Then, should you decide to use any of the elements, do so in a situation that would not parallel the circumstances of this particular loss to your family so there’s no risk of hurt feelings or misunderstandings . . . .

    [Henny Youngman, by the way, passed away in February of 1998 . . . he was 91.]

  2. Thanks, Joan.
    Apologies for the run-on look of this post...maybe it was a stream-of-consciousness thing.
    It's odd...the sister of an acquaintance was the victim of serious violence and I have never considered writing that story. It was too awful. But for some reason, this feels different. Perhaps because the (most obvious) victim did it to himself. I will write, but wait.

    91. Henny Youngman knew how to live!

  3. Same thing happened to me, only a much closer relative, and I'm the one who who unravelled the secrets of the dead person's life (which were quite a shock to the family - it was an interesting funeral, to say the least, and things got worse as more was found out). I've sat on it for more than a decade, but expect that I'll eventually weave parts of it into a novel. Maybe just the threads that I tugged on that ended up unraveling it; maybe just the emotions involved, or the debris left behind. Don't think I'd ever be comfortable using the whole story, and it actually probably would seem too far-ferched to be believable.

  4. What a shock, to learn that such a person's life was nothing but a facade. One question: Did his wife know that things were not as they looked?

    I agree with Jan's characterization of suicide as a "complicated grief". Well put, Jan. My brother shot himself nearly nine years ago, and we are all still puzzled and guilt-ridden about his motives and the level of pain he must have felt to do something so drastic and permanent. It changes the dynamic of the family, that's for sure.

    Having no end of literary material in my own family history, I've wrestled with some of this same dilemma. How to use the unique details of life in such a way that no one is horrified or furious, but that everyone involved can get closure, or some kind of validation. One issue is always about the person who "was there" who will argue that things didn't happen that way, even though you've fictionalized the events.

    Could you twist the details enough to make them incidental to a main character, rather than about one? For instance, the best friend's family member is the focus, or a neighbor, or some other person at arms length?

    By the way, Kirk Douglas just turned 96. I know!

  5. Karen,
    When my best friend Melinda killed herself, my means of grief was research - to read absolutely everything I could about post partum depression and suicide in general.

    To this day, I am still hypersensitive if anyone is discussing a suicide. In many, many, instances it's not really a "decision."

    I am so sorry about your brother and what you must have gone through.

  6. ANd it makes you change perspective a bit..evey story you read in the paper, remember is about a real person with a famy and a history..we just don't know it.

    I'm haunted by the nurse in London.

  7. So am I, Hank. You never know what others are going through at the time of your interaction with them. That nurse may have already been in some sort of personal crisis, and that one embarrassing event might have sent her over the edge. It's best to be kind to everyone, at all times.

    You do an excellent job of that, by the way.

  8. Sara, definitely similarities. I think I would use threads as you call them, but not the whole story.

    I'm still unclear on the nurse story - she gave out information to radio pranksters? That doesn't seem so terrible.

  9. You are very wise to ask advice of a group like this, wonderfully sage minds. This is a very sticky wicket - hold on to your notes - for a long time - if you do decide to write it disguise it so well that the family would not recognize it. Many authors use real life situations, but carefully disguised - for all the reasons stated above. Thelma Straw in Manhattan

  10. Ro, I am so so sorry. I can't even begin to say I understand, but I am sorry.

    But I would like to take this opportunity to tell you how much I admire all the things you do - building houses, building libraries - you are truly an amazing woman and quite an inspiration.

    I think the advice offered here by your Red sisters is excellent and spot on.

    Sometimes I'm guessing the disclaimer regarding "Any persons living or dead . . . " may not work. (and I'd like to hear Hank's take on this!) Anyone here remember this case: "The bestselling 2003 novel "The Red Hat Club" treaded a little too close to one woman’s real life, a Hall County jury decided Thursday in a case that could have wider implications in the publishing world.

    Vickie Stewart won her defamation lawsuit against author and former friend Haywood Smith when a Hall County State Court jury found that the book libeled her by including a fictional character that closely resembled Stewart."

    More here:

  11. Sorry for the sad news. I agree with the advise to journal details but wait to produce your work. Storytelling friends who tell from their own lives often wait to tell some stories until things settle down (or certain participants are gone from the earth) or ask family members to hear the tale before it goes public. It's possible that by the time you have the story you want to write, it will be so far removed from your real life that it will be quite safe to tell. Hugs!

  12. Oh, that's a tough. I'm sorry to hear of the loss in the family, and I agree with all the good advice...but, isn't it hard when you feel inspired and excited by a possible story idea, and you SOOOO want to write it, but you have to take into consideration, well, reality? That's a toughie.

    My latest inspiration is a friend called B, who is going through a heinous time: bankruptcy, home foreclosure, divorce. He's in bad shape health-wise (heart, diabetes), AND, to top it all off, his beloved dogs are decrepit and likely to die soon. Anyhow, he needed a job bad, so he's working as a "retrieval technician" i.e. body snatcher i.e. the guy who transports the recently dead to the county morgue or funeral home. Yikes, right? But, of course, I'm lovin' it. Yesterday, he told me stories. And I can't help thinking...Maybe there's a retrieval technician who stumbles on a murder conspiracy...or something like that...It's too fascinating and I'm so morbidly enthused by his interim job that I have to take care to remember that he's going through a really tough time right now...This isn't exactly his dream job.

    But still!! (A county morgue tour in my future? Maybe!)

  13. My condolences. Rosemary. And yes, Jan’s phrase “a complicated grief” captures it beautifully. Good advice from your JRW sisters – write down the details now, including your own feelings, and see what develops. You may feel the urge to use it in a story now–because you are a writer and that’s how you process the world–but you may not feel that need after you record the experience for yourself, and as time passes. If you do ultimately decide to use part of the story as inspiration for a novel–well, as you write, it will change. If you’re serving the story, the characters you started with will take on lives of their own and may not eventually even resemble your cousin and her husband or others involved–except in your own writerly memory, because you’ll be able to trace their evolution, but no one else will. Such is the nature of fiction.

  14. My best friend took her own life. And I knew at least a part of her secrets. I have never shared with anyone else. I have lost touch with her family. And I am not sure I want to know whatever they may have learned. I loved her, and miss her, and got angry at her, and loved her. Most of all I loved her.

  15. Rosemary,
    I am very sorry about the loss in your family. I feel just awful that your cousin is living this hell at the holidays. People I have known have committed/attempted/threatened suicide. Fifteen years ago (at the holidays) I was the intended victim in a murder/suicide, something which still leaves me feeling numb. The person, one of my siblings (I feel okay mentioning this because people who know our family know about this) was removed from the area moments before getting ready to carry out the plan, and spent time in a psych hospital. Even though I wrote all the details in my journal (and I have not reread it), I don't know how I would feel about someone, even a close relative or friend, using the material in a story. My feelings about the entire event have undergone several changes over the years. I eventually decided that mental illness can sometimes be a fatal illness,taking the form of suicide. I fully expected my sibling to eventually die that way. However, my relative is doing pretty well these days, thanks to good medications, and we even have a healthy relationship, which I never dreamed would happen. I think you NEED to write down all the details for yourself in order to help you come to terms with everything and to help you to be a support to your cousin. The advice given to you here by your fellow authors sounds pretty good to me.

  16. Ro, my sympathies to you and your family in this dreadful situation. I think Jan said it best, suicide is a complicated grief. And so often there are lots of secrets that come out afterward.

    The Reds have given you excellent advice. Write it and put it away. The widow may well--probably will--change her tune as time goes by and the lawsuits unfold. I also find that writing about something to close and immediate is never as good as when I wait to get some distance and perspective on the event.

    As to the question about real life inspirations, yes, something I learned about on JRW, in fact, has inspired the plot for a standalone thriller. (I've done much research on it since learning of it, of course.) I think, once I've finished the third Skeet Bannion book, that this will be my next book.

  17. I'm so sorry you had such an experience and tragedy in your family, but I have to say your tag line, "Take my life...." didn't make me think of Henny Youngman. It started an old Methodist hymn going 'round and'round in my mind. Don't know what that says about me, except maybe I wasn't a big Youngman fan.

  18. This was so interesting (and poignant that so many have lost people to suicide). I lost a good friend that way too, planned for years to write about it, don't know if I will now or not.

    Judy Alter, I didn't think of that hymn until you brought it up and now I have an earworm too.

    I have a question though -- when the story is good & you don't like the people who did you wrong -- does a nome de plume help? And what steps would you take if you don't wait until their deaths?