Bait and Switch

Recently, I read a story about a writer who wrote a story that landed her in hot water.

In an essay published on a blog, the writer said she wrote a short story satirizing close family friends. The friends read her manuscript without her permission, and were wounded. One refused to speak to her and sent an intermediary to her door, to tell her that their relationship was now over.

Really? I thought. In the 21st century, she didn’t just send a text?

The other friend took the writer out to lunch, to excoriate her at length in a café.

In the 21st century? I thought. Really?

As it turned out, no. Not really.

At the very end of the so-called “essay,” the writer revealed that there’d been no friends, no satire, no break-up lunch. The whole thing was an elaborate bait-and-switch. It was like that time I was at a diner with a friend of mine, and a waitress brought my friend a slice of pie he hadn’t ordered, moved as though to set it down in front of him, and at the last minute, whisked it away again, saying, “Psych!”

When a waitress does it in a diner, it can be funny. (That time, it was.) When a writer does it to her readers, though, it’s far more likely to leave a bad taste in your mouth.

In this case, it was doubly problematic because of the dilemma the writer claimed to have wrestled with. If there’s one question most frequently asked in Gotham’s classes, I’m betting it would be, “How do I tell my stories without hurting my family/friends/loved ones?” It preoccupies almost every writer I know. I’ve written a longer reply to that question, (which you can read here), but the short answer is, don’t worry about it now. Write your story, and trust that when the time comes, you will follow your conscience and your instincts to find the best way to balance your need to tell stories with your need to protect those you love.

The struggle to find that balance is real. And that’s the deeper problem with that fake memoir. Its author set out to engage a fear that keeps most writers awake at night, but instead of confronting it, she skirted it, and instead fed us a fable full of empty wisdom.

On second thought, she did supply some wisdom, albeit accidentally: She gave us another example of why you shouldn’t write fiction and call it memoir. More importantly, she demonstrated that you won’t fool anyone by swooping close to the hard truths of your story, then whisking away at the last second and calling out, “Psych!”

Kelly Caldwell
Dean of Faculty

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