Monday, March 3, 2008

Voluntary Censorship -- A Good Idea?

Keith Raffel here with a question for writers.

My sister and I went over to Berkeley to see Carrie Fisher in her one-woman show, Wishful Drinking. What a life! Daughter of "America's Sweethearts," Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher. Step-daughter of Connie Stevens. (What do you mean you don't remember Cricket from Hawaiian Eye?) First film playing a 1970's Lolita opposite Warren Beatty in Shampoo. Then in a life-altering role, Princess Leia Organa. Ex-wife of Paul Simon. Novelist. (You should hear her read the audiotape of Postcards from the Edge.) Top script doctor.

In the course of the show, she chats about her drug addiction, bi-polar disorder, second marriage to a guy who turns out to be gay, and good friend's death on her bed. She lowers down from the ceiling a life-size Princess Leia sex doll. She discusses her parents' break-up (Dad ran away with Elizabeth Taylor) and her mother's ill-conceived subsequent marriages. She mentions in passing one of her mother's great ideas -- that she, Carrie, should have a child with her mother's husband. (Advice not followed.) More sex, drugs, and rock & roll. One thing. Five seats over from my sister and me sat her mother. I was aghast. Carrie addressed her mom up in the mezzanine. Debbie seemed both resigned and proud. (The night before George Lucas was in the audience, and in the dressing room after the show, Carrie finally found out why he had told her on the Star Wars set that there was no underwear in outer space.)
Someone once said you should write as though your mother is dead. Carrie Fisher wasn't even fazed when her mom was in the audience. I've told my younger kids that Dot Dead is PG-32. A guy in the audience at one local bookstore asked me why the sex scenes in Dot Dead weren't grittier. I told him I was conscious that I had four kids who would read the book some day.

So I guess I do censor myself. I could never carry off what Carrie Fisher did. (OTOH, my life has not been as "interesting" as hers -- at least from a People Magazine perspective, I mean.)

Writers, are you ever censoring what you write because of what your spouse, squeeze, kids, parents, or friends might think? Spill it.


Anonymous said...

Yes! I censor what I write bec (1) my kids will someday read it (I tell them it's PG-13) and (2) bec I have a set of values that preclude me from using offensive phrases (ie, I don't take the Lord's name in vain). That being said, I do question myself. When I read books by successful mystery/adventure/thriller writers, and every other piece of dialogue has f* or sh*, etc, I do wonder if I can be competitive. Nothing I can do about that. I have to remain true to myself.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Both of my parents are deceased and I have no children, so I'll admit I don't shrink from telling the story exactly as I wish. But since some of Odelia Grey's sketchy family background is similar to my own, I wonder if I would feel that way if Mom and Dad were alive?

BUT, I do censor myself according to the projects I write. My Odelia Grey novels are sexy and adult without being offensive and I planned it that way. However, I let it all rip in my non-mystery novels, both of which are not yet published. And I find I get grittier with each one.

Basically, I follow the rule: does it fit the character and the story, more than who will blush and get on the phone and call me.

And since you know me, you know I am much more vulgar vocabulary-wise in person than on the page. :)

Mark Combes said...

My mom is aghast at my foul language. "Who taught you to talk like that?!" I tell her it was Dad....

Bill Cameron said...

I wrote a story many years ago with a number of autobiographical elements, but significantly re-arranged and augmented for dramatic effect. I mean, hell, it was a story, right?

So a member of my family reads the story, and suddenly they're all, "That's not the way it happened. I was the one who...!" Etc. Etc. I explained that I used a couple of events as a starting point but then played What If? until I'd gone widely astray from reality. Didn't matter. I'd gotten it "wrong."

That was my first hint that fiction isn't always seen as "fiction," and readers may react not only to the words on the page but also according to internal perceptions of how they see themselves and me in relationship to those words. An eye-opener.

Did it change the way I write? Yes and no. It did change the way I share my writing. With short stories, it's easy to manage reading by family if I feel I need to. Novels are tougher, because they're such an "event," but I also have the PG-32 standard with my kids. As if kids ever pay attention to anything their parents say.

Topically, I still draw on my life experience, but it tends to be more indirect now. My fiction isn't autobiographical in terms of events, but events in my life drive my fiction in a thematic sense. What that does for me is lets me write about what's important to me without worrying that someone's going to feel betrayed or that I "got it wrong."

Nina Wright said...

Thought-provoking post, Keith.

I would hesitate to write memoir until a certain person I used to live with is confirmed dead or too far gone to read.

As for Sue Ann, I draw the line according to project context. I think all good writers work that way, consciously or not. Since the Whiskey Mattimoe series is intended, above all, to be funny, I'm not going to push the sexual envelope on that one...although forthcoming Number Four, WHISKEY AND WATER, does see Whiskey in bed, finally. We also have full frontal nudity, rendered to comic effect.

I wonder if that kind of disclaimer helps or hurts sales....


Christa M. Miller said...

Bill's experience is what made me decide not to worry about it, if my books ever get published. I have a history of pissing off my parents no matter what I do or say or how hard I try NOT to piss them off, so I figure if that's the case, then I may as well write what's on my mind. It's really rather liberating!

My blog is a different story. I do have to self-censor because my mother reads it (much as I wish she didn't), and it's harder to plead creative license on personal essays. Some things I leave out. Other things I pull punches on. Sometimes it doesn't matter. I try to keep in mind my real target audience - writing moms - and filter my words according to them, not my parents.

CandaceCalvert said...

Interesting question, and one I struggled with in my sassy chick lit mystery series. Especially after the day I was leaving church and my pastor (who also happens to live next door)happily told me that his wife had just purchased one of my books . . . aagh! Fortunately, she has a fabulous sense of humor.

And that trauma had nothing whatsoever to do with my decision to start writing inspirational fiction. Really. Swear.(Um, scratch that).