3 Days in Rome: on borrowing the lives of others for your fiction

There is a running joke among authors. “Lookout, or I’ll write you into one of my stories! Ha ha!”

I said it’s a joke. But for many authors it’s no joke.writer1

On October 19, 1998, The Author’s Guild held a panel discussion titled “Whose life is it anyway?” There were four panelists who addressed the topic of authors appropriating the lives and experiences of others in their writing. As Wendell Berry described it in his book Life is a Miracle, “the conversation is illustrative of the problem of freedom.” But I would go farther than that.

Three of the four panelists agreed that fiction writers must have total freedom to write absolutely anything, including stories that harm others. One panelist said,

“I could not imagine that fiction might not be an arena of total freedom…Life becomes real only through having been written…Inevitably, writers are responsible for wounds and hurts—but the writer must say, I don’t care, I don’t give a damn…”

Aside from the fact that the sentence ‘Life becomes real only through having been written‘ is a completely baffling statement, I find this quote somewhat threatening. What if some writer set me as their target? It would seem that no one is safe.

There may be some readers who are in sympathy with the statement. We can’t give in to censorship, even self-censorship, you might say. It could start to sound like authorial cowardice, like a writer didn’t have the bravery to write a real masterpiece, complete with controversy, and therefore their art lacked the real power that comes from honesty. Is that you? Let’s read on.

Another panelist approvingly offered the following quote: “For every writer it is a rite of passage to write the story after which a member of your family will no longer speak to you.” He then stated his personal credo, “I say anything goes in fiction—anything goes. If you start to take away bit by bit the rights of writers doing what they want, what you end up eroding is your own freedom.”

Now we have moved beyond threatening to gratuitous. I think I understand his intention, but the statement lacks any hit of nuance. Can he really mean this? If he really means what he says, to the full extent that he seems to mean it—that a writer’s friends and family are fair game—then the writer is a loose cannon, a persona non grata to the rest of society, a voyeur, a thief,  and a tyrant. One wonders, how far would this guy go? Would he proceed, one by one, to crush family members and friends until he was completely isolated but for the adulation of the anonymous masses of readers? Is the necessary freedom of fiction worth that ultimate price? Because really, you could make a great story out of anyone.

I’m going on record and say that writers should not base any character on anyone who would recognize themselves in the character without that person’s explicit permission. And even THEN it might be better judgement not to use the person. A fiction writer (excluding satirists here) should still live in the context of human community. Maybe your Uncle Frank is a goldmine of craziness. That divorce, the fist fights, the coke, and <gasp!> that trip to Thailand! Maybe he is a messed up, sociopath with a police record for child porn. But he is your mother’s brother, and she still loves him. He did come to your book launch, after all. And he mentioned your book on Facebook, several times.

Don’t do it. Don’t write Uncle Frank in any way that he would remotely recognize. For Uncle Frank’s sake, for your mother’s sake. And for your own soul’s sake.

This is not to say what should be obvious: that obviously writers draw from their own experience and from things they see and hear, perhaps even in the lives of friends and family. We can only write what we know, as the saying goes, and frequently life provides the most authentic and interesting material. The writers endeavor is to show readers something true, something beautiful, something real. But if that means writers can take the private, intimate experiences of others and say, “Hey! Look at my art! Look how messed up my cousin’s family is! It’s real! It’s authentic!” then that writer is little more than a cowardly, uncreative gossip, or worse, someone trying to get money and fame from selling gossip.

And we are not talking about “eroding your own freedom.” I am talking about voluntary self-restraint for the sake of intimacy, blood relations, honor, and humanity. It may be legal in the United States to write a family member’s dirty laundry into a book. As long as you don’t name names, you can probably avoid a charge of libel. No one is talking about laws for authorial censorship. I am saying, no story is so important that betrayal of friends or family justifies it.

I am talking about a Code of Ethics for writers. After all, the pen is mightier than the sword. It could be short: don’t destroy people with your writing, don’t plagiarize. There may be others.

An example of the betrayal of having one’s experiences written down and published can be seen in one of Sheryl Crow’s songs. Apparently, she had a 3-day romantic experience in Rome with a writer who believed in this principle. On her 1996 self-titled album there was a song called “The Book” that contained the following lyrics:


I read your book

And I find it strange

That I know that girl

And I know her world

A little too well

 

I didn’t know

By giving my hand

That I would be written down

Sliced around

Passed down

Among strangers hands

 

Three days in RomeSheryl_Crow

Where do we go

I’ll always remember

Three days in Rome


Never again

Would I see your face

You carry a pen and a paper

And no time and no words you waste

 

You’re a voyeur

The worst kind of thief

To take what happened to us

To write down everything

That went on between you and me

 

Three days in Rome

And I stand alone

I’ll always remember

Three days in Rome


The final panelist, Janna Malamoud Smith, said the following:

“When rationalizing the exposure of others, writers tend to claim two values as having overriding worth. One is the aesthetic goal of telling the story well. There’s often a feeling that writing beautifully is an ultimate good, that telling a tale very well compensates any harm it might do to its subjects. The second virtue writers tend to honor is outing the truth. We take seriously the job of looking beyond hypocrisy and social facade….We like to believe there is a version of the truth that is superior and that we can state it….[But] when the private things intimacy has allowed you to expose are suddenly made public, that is a legitimate reason for a feeling of profound betrayal….Betrayals are a real thing.”

pengunWriters perhaps more than any other are given to romanticizing of their own profession. We see ourselves as freedom fighters, pioneers, guardians of free speech. We can romanticize our plight and the plight that will come to humanity by any hint of gagging or restraint. We can cry “censorship!” In Smith’s words, we can see our project as an “ultimate good.”

But as in many things, your freedom to throw a punch ends at the tip of my nose. In the United States, Free Speech has never meant unlimited verbal license. You can’t shout “fire” in a crowded theater. You cannot advocate the overthrow of the government. You cannot print falsehood about someone else in the paper. There are laws about libel. There is such a thing as slander, lying, and verbal abuse. Free speech is not absolute.

Writing details from others lives and experiences does not necessarily entail betrayal or slander of that person. A half-way decent writer can sufficiently conceal identities. He could change Uncle Frank into a City Councilwoman. I don’t need to go into how to do that here.

I say to my fellow writers, if you can’t come up with original material without violating trust, if you can’t write with a conscience,  if you can’t contribute something good and noble and true, then for the sake of us all, find another trade.

1 Comment

  1. This is a tiny bit off-topic, but I once heard someone being interviewed on NPR say that Jane Austen’s sister had no right to destroy Jane’s letters after her death, because literary scholars and historians needed them. I’ve always found it disturbing that anyone could honestly believe that.

    I don’t think I was aware that so many writers think they’re entitled to chronicle every aspect of their friends’ and families’ lives. I suppose it’s good that most of them probably know they would be really unhappy if they alienated everyone in their circle.

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