By Samuel Leighton-Dore
On 4 June I’ll be speaking at the Emerging Writer’s Festival in Melbourne about the challenges and ethical struggles that can arise when we write about the real people in our lives. This comes after recently self-publishing my first children’s book I Think I’m A Poof; directing an award-winning short film Showboy; and starting a relationships and lifestyle column for the Star Observer magazine.
As writers it’s our job to draw on our personal relationships, observations and experiences to build immersive stories that broaden an audience’s perspective and understanding. For me, this creative process has always been anchored in love and sexuality, which can (if you’re not careful) have implications for those closest to you. It remains largely untaught: Where do mostly-decent storytelling human beings draw the line between a rich narrative experience and the hurtful exploitation of trust? Furthermore, how do we give voice to a particular community without inadvertently misrepresenting them?
As for writing about loved ones, speaking from the perspective of a niche audience can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you’ve got a much denser market to support your work; but on the other, these very same people may feel you’re commenting inaccurately on their behalf. I Think I’m A Poof was a personal and cathartic outlet for my long-held frustrations caused by childhood bullying. It is the book I didn’t have that I needed at the time. A tongue-in-cheek picture book, I Think I’m A Poof is my attempt to redefine a young person’s protagonist, and start a conversation about the much-needed diversity in children’s characters and storytelling.
The response has been largely positive, but, as always, a small group of naysayers cut through the praise in a way I wasn’t prepared for. “It’s only a matter of time before your book drives a child to suicide,” said one. “This is disgusting and offensive,” lamented another, “words of more depth can be found on the back of any given cereal box,” they said. Whether this hostility stemmed from a generation gap, misinterpretation, or mere social conservatism, I quickly realised that those I’d been actively championing didn’t necessarily want to be championed; at least not by me. Although it is my story to tell, it is one familiar to many others, and having a fraction of oneself reflected in a fictitious character can be confronting. But perhaps that’s why writers do it, and why we must continue documenting our lives and the warts-and-all experiences of those around us—to reflect, confront and disarm.
On the set of Showboy.
My short film Showboy was inspired by a young drag queen loitering in the small hours at Stonewall Hotel on Oxford Street, where I worked at the time. She looked fabulous and seemed relatively unaffected (a rare combination), so we started talking. She was 18 years old and from Penrith, where she lived with her parents, neither of whom knew she was gay, let alone a budding drag performer. During the following weeks I learnt more about this person, who they’d previously been, and all they’d endured on their personal road to self-discovery. Several years later I used her personal tales as the bare foundation for my first script.
Whether you’re writing a screenplay, children’s book, novel, essay, or blogpost, there’s always going to be a complex moral compass behind telling true stories. Rather than compromise, the key lies in mindfulness. Something I will continue to strive for in my creative endeavours as well as my everyday life.
Samuel Leighton-Dore is a Sydney-based writer, director and columnist. His new book I Think I’m A Poof is available now at www.ithinkimapoof.com – with one dollar from every copy proudly donated to QLife, Australia’s first national helpline for LGBTI youth. You can also follow him @SamLeightonDore.