Thursday, 8 April 2010

Writing the truth

I'm back from Scotland now (oops - did I not mention I was going?). An 8 hour drive through snowy landscapes to find spring has arrived in Wirralia, daffs blooming, and a dead duck in the middle of the lawn. Really.

Not a joke. Not a metaphor. Definitely not a double entendre. A duck. Dead. I'd have taken a picture but I had to act quickly, so all you're getting is a picture of the local soup where I was in Scotland*. But I digress.

This post may seem to be rambling, prevaricating and procrastinating but there's a reason - some of the best stories are the ones that Cannot Be Told. Sometimes you witness remarkable occurrences which embrace the humour and pathos of life, scenes which could (if written) become literary or cinema classics - events which really happened to you, which are emotionally true and press to be told. But the telling would compromise, embarrass, expose or demean somebody else. That makes them out of bounds. Some of the richest pickings in your life are Not For Public Consumption.

So you'll hear no more about it. A great screenplay goes unwritten. Think Local Hero, Thelma and Louise, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Whiskey Galore.

All you're getting is a dead duck. And now it becomes (as everything does) a metaphor - ripe for plucking but shot down in it's prime, potentially significant and wanting further examination, bundled up for the sake of decency and put out in the wheelie bin.

So where do we stand as writers? Do we 'publish and be damned' by running rough-shod over the feelings and reputations of others in pursuit of a 'good story' like tabloid journalists? Do we squeeze out every ounce of creative juice to camouflage the details as though our protagonists were part of a witness protection scheme? Do we wait until everyone involved is dead or demented? How far would YOU go and when would you stop?

* Historical note: Dr Samuel Johnson and James Boswell breakfasted at Cullen on 26 August 1773 on their tour of Scotland. Boswell wrote, "We breakfasted at Cullen. They set down dried haddocks broiled, along with our tea. I ate one; but Dr. Johnson was disgusted by the sight of them, so they were removed."


  1. Oh, I know what you mean. You think you ramble, but I get it. I have such a true story that I would have to leave the country or the planet if I told it. It has to be told. It pushes at the edges of my skin. I wrote some of it on a secret blog once and deleted it immediately. It was too skinky cullen.

  2. I'd sell you down the river for a Toffee Crisp, and my Grandmother for half a packet of dry roasted peanuts.

    A sliver of ice in a writer's heart? No, the whole blimmin' glacier.

    Change the name and gender. No-one ever guesses ...

  3. A former Fleet Street editor once offered me work with a national tabloid. By the time the offer came, I had seen just how low I would be expected to go in the pursuit of a headline. He, himself, knew no bounds.

    Not for me I'm afraid. In the end, you've got to be able to live with yourself.

  4. Ooh I'm intrigued! It's a tricky one. I personally couldn't bear to tell tales (and I have many) that might hurt or demean anyone I know, so will have to wait until they're all dead.

  5. If you had the people in question assassinated... no, I guess not. In the meantime, as long as you can write paragraphs like that dead duck one, you'll do just fine.

    I wouldn't write a story that clearly implicated, and would hurt, someone I know. But I would write a different story with some of the same elements, and draw on my personal experiences and feelings.