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Originally published Monday, June 16, 2014 at 6:18 AM

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Dear Carolyn: Artistic process alters family’s truth

A sister’s first-person’s published essays are best taken as entertainment, not reality, as she makes her family sounds like caricatures of themselves, and not always in a positive way.


Syndicated columnist

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writers have been using their family and friends as literary fodder ever since there has been writing. MORE
@m5pooh @Meredith Houseman Sorry, you're not going to change anyone's thinking, especially mine. MORE
"The opinion I formed is that essays like your sister's are best taken as entertainment, not reality." This statement... MORE

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Dear Carolyn

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Hi, Carolyn:

I’ve got a question into which you might have particular insight. My sister writes weekly first-person features for a regionally well-known magazine.

Recently I’ve noticed that she sometimes makes our family sound like caricatures of ourselves, and not always in a positive way. Mom is a little pushy; Sis casts her as a boundary-challenged social oaf. Sis and I have a small spat; Sis paints it as the hugest deal ever.

I get that it’s a little like stage makeup — the mythological proportions make it easier to understand at the readers’ distance. And she’s always careful to protect our identities and to balance the bad with the good.

Still, sometimes this smarts, and I wonder whether she truly sees things as she describes them; should I be apologizing when I read that I’ve hurt her? She says I just shouldn’t ever take these things personally, but I’m not so sure.

— Philly

DEAR PHILLY: I gave this a lot of thought when I posted David Sedaris’ New Yorker piece on his sister’s death (http://nyr.kr/Is3I0X), and learned that Tiffany Sedaris wasn’t comfortable with his writing (http://bit.ly/1rI53FL) — and also saw this stunning obit (http://bit.ly/TatpZd), which itself isn’t pertinent here but is a must-read and so there you go.

The opinion I formed is that essays like your sister’s are best taken as entertainment, not reality. Best for your peace of mind; best for your sister, since it’s her art form; best for your family bond. I realize this has to involve a degree of denial, since it’s your family going under the blowtorch and being twisted into a form you don’t recognize. But, that’s my point — it’s not your family, it’s art made from the raw material of your family, which means it gets changed in the artistic process.

As for apologies, just ask: “I read X. Are you genuinely upset, or were you taking artistic license?”

If you can’t not hurt, then don’t read her work. That’s just as acceptable, to my mind, as her using your lives this way.

Re: Philly:

My parents are nationally recognized writers who write about their lives, much of which included me and my sibling. I have grappled with this, and come to realize that although some of the things they wrote about bothered me, it was coming not necessarily from THEM but them as they related to their intended audience. So when my attributes were exaggerated, it was for the benefit of the reader to capture a storytelling mechanism, not necessarily how they would describe something if they were talking to a close friend.

I see it in myself — I speak about my husband, for example, to co-workers in a way different than I would to a friend. That said, I have asked them on several occasions to curtail the use of my “character” and have said “no comment” on a few topics. The fact that they respond easily and well to these brush-offs makes me much more generous with them.

At this point I couldn’t care less what their readers think and that sentiment is awesome to learn by any means, but coming from a unique perspective does certainly make me laugh at how weird life is.

– Anonymous

DEAR ANONYMOUS: I love this, thanks.

Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com and follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax. Find her columns daily at www.seattletimes.com/living



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