My 7th grade science teacher liked to say, “Never ASSUME. It only makes an ASS out of U and ME.” I’ve always found that maxim easy to agree with, but difficult to live by. Despite good intentions, I often make assumptions — out of convenience, and perhaps a bit of arrogance too. It’s a habit that I fight, but have yet to fully and truly break.
I’m often reminded of that when I’m reading. Just yesterday I read “Miss Lora” by Junot Diaz, and I found myself wondering if Diaz’s brother had had cancer. When Wikipedia confirmed that he had, I began to assume that other parts of the story were true as well. (Namely, that as a teenager Diaz had an affair with an older woman in his neighborhood.)
The thing is, I should know better. I’m a writer myself, and I’ve had to deal with people’s assumptions about my own stories on more than on occasion.
Now, in fairness, sometimes we writers bring that problem upon ourselves. In TWENTY-SOMEWHERE, the 3 main characters are based on me and two of my best friends. This does not mean that everything that happens to the 20SW girls happened to us; in fact, very little of it did. (No flirtations with a supervisor. No boyfriend sneaking onto my computer to check my word count. No hot Venezuelan — unfortunately.) But because the girls’ personalities are so close to me and my friends’, people assume that the rest is close to our reality too. Even people who have known us well and for years.
I’m lucky that those two friends don’t mind my borrowing from our personalities and creating some confusion about our lives. But as I saw with Andy’s book and the controversy it caused, not everyone is okay with that kind of muddy ground.
So what can be done?
Well, I think the only step writers can take to prevent reader assumptions is to write about things completely foreign to their own lives. But is that a fair request/requirement? What about the rule to “write what you know”? The instant that writers start borrowing from our own experiences in order to enrich our stories — whether setting, characters, plot or even language — we invite speculation.
(Did Suzanne Collins have mommy issues? Is Twilight meant to promote conservative Mormon views? Has Nicholas Sparks lost everyone in his life to tragic illness?)
No matter how many denials or disclaimers you provide, readers are going to assume things. Some of it will be true, some of it won’t. (Some of it will be flattering, some of it won’t.) There is very little we can do about it — so I guess literature has that in common with, well, most things in life.
I, for one, would not want writers to feel restrained from putting parts of themselves or their lives into their stories. Many of my favorite songs, books, and plays are inspired by real life to some degree. (Steel Magnolias, “Teenage Dream,” The Joy Luck Club.)
It’s on me, then, not to leap to conclusions or judgment. Easier said than done, but I try. Because the last thing I want is to make an ass out of anyone.