Teri Vlassopoulos

Teri Vlassopoulos

Shortly after I started making zines in high school, my mother said to me, “It’s good to have secrets sometimes.” We were in the kitchen; we hadn’t been speaking of secrets, of the merits of keeping or spilling them. She knew I was making zines, though, and had seen the piles of Xeroxed paper and envelopes addressed to me in the mail. I’d never offered up a zine for her to read, but I didn’t hide them, either, and she’d probably read one on her own. I balked at the advice: telling secrets implies a breach of confidence, something bad, and I wasn’t doing that. I was just writing about myself.

***

I had a complicated friendship in high school. When I was older, I learned it was complicated the way many female friendships can be—they burn hot and the stakes are high. Eventually we needed a break. I made zines in earnest during that period, and also started a blog, which was more like a zine because blogs as they are now didn’t exist. Like my zine, it was a collection of haphazard paragraphs, some fiction, some non-fiction, but that formal distinction didn’t really exist for me yet, either. I just wrote whatever. After a few weeks, we started talking again. I read about the trip you took with your new friends, she said. I had no idea what she was talking about until I remembered my website. I was surprised by how bitter she sounded.

***

Is it flattering to be written about? Yes. No, definitely not. Or, maybe? As a writer, I know that the writing usually has little to do with you. You’re a jumping off point, filtered through a writer’s lens with the purpose of arriving at some kind of truth. Details get blurred, remembered incorrectly, or conflated. As a writer, I never really thought about the implications of being written about; if anything, it would be me doing the writing. Recently, however, someone close to me wrote an essay that involved me directly. I read drafts, offered comments. I understood the impulse for the writing. Later, and inconveniently, after it had been published, I realized that I’d focused too much on the text itself and not what was spoken about in the piece. For good reason—the text was an object at a comfortable remove, tidied up and concluded in a way that hadn’t yet happened in real life. When I finally brought up my discomfort, not in clean, edited, written words, but messy spoken ones, I was surprised by how bitter I sounded.

***

The paragraph that bothered my high school friend was fiction. Even after I told her it didn’t happen and those people didn’t exist, she was still offended, because, she suspected, there was truth in it. There was something speaking to the desire for the type of relationship I wanted, which was nothing like the one I had with her. She had a point. She’d read through my website looking for signs of her and hadn’t found anything to her satisfaction. Is it worse to not be written about? Yes. No. Maybe?

***

I realized this summer that it had been awhile since I’d really thought about the dynamics of a close friendship, both in practice, i.e., the actual mechanics of it, and also how it’s written about. I needed to read something, but wasn’t sure what. I wandered through a bookstore and ended up in Fiction. I picked up Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. I sank into it so deeply it was almost luxurious. It was what I needed: a big novel about close relationships, but fictional ones. Next I inhaled Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, which I needed even more: a deep dive into the complexity of a friendship and how it changed over time, and a reminder that nothing is static, even the relationships you once considered immovable. Over the course of the books, the narrator, Lenù, grows up and becomes a writer. At one point her best friend Lila makes her promise not to write about her. Lenù swears that she won’t. Of course she does. Not explicitly, but she’s there. Of course she is. Like Joan Didion says, writers are always selling somebody out.

***

If that’s going to happen, then, is it better to just stick to fiction? If someone is going to make assumptions about what you’re writing (or who you’re writing about), it’s easier to shrug off fiction—I just made it up. It didn’t happen. Maybe I ended up internalizing my mother’s advice, but twisted it around a little—if you’re going to tell your secrets, better to change them, distort them.

***

I don’t know if I really believe that, though. In both fiction and non-fiction, some people will believe things happened when they didn’t, or that they didn’t when they did.  In both non-fiction and fiction, someone at some point will say, you got that wrong. Both genres get tangled up for me. I write both, I read both, I extract what I need from them without thinking of the distinction between the two. The two strands have always woven through my writing and reading life.

***

So maybe it doesn’t matter then. There’s something to be said about the timing of when something is written and dealing with personal fallout in a respectful way. However, maybe the most truthful writing, the writing that comes closest to real life—regardless of whether it’s fiction or non-fiction and regardless of whether or not it happens quietly in you or not so quietly in other people—will cause trouble no matter what.

Teri Vlassopoulos is the author of the forthcoming novel, Escape Plans (Invisible Publishing), and the award-nominated short story collection Bats or Swallows. Her fiction has appeared in Room Magazine, Joyland, Little Fiction, and various other North American journals, and her non-fiction has appeared at The Toast, The Rumpus, and The Millions. She is also a regular columnist for Bookslut. She lives in Toronto and can be found at @terki and http://bibliographic.net.

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