Tag: author

I gave the mayor of Austin a copy

Austin Proc med 2

Today I had the pleasure with several other members of the Texas Association of Authors of meeting with Mayor Steve Adler at City Hall for the proclamation of April 12th as DEAR Texas Day. As you can see, I was more concerned about standing up straight and holding my stomach in than I was about smiling or paying attention.

Afterward, each of the authors who showed up gave Mayor Adler a copy of our books (at the suggestion of the TAA coordinator). If he actually reads my book I hope he will not take offense; the chief villain in my book is the city’s mayor.

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.

Street performer

Imagine you want to create a work of art in fiction writing. Your topic? The nebulous and weighty matter of Identity. Let’s say you draw from all of your life experience, your belief systems, your worldview. You bring it all to bear. And when it’s all said and done, the end result is basically, “I’m not really sure what to make of Identity, but I can riff for 200 pages, and keep you entertained on the fact that I don’t know what to make of it. But nobody really does, do they?”

I finished the book I was reading, Sorry Please Thank You, by Charles Yu, and this is what I came away with: the sense of being engaged for a short while by a street performer. First, he gets your attention with his best act, the real mind-blower of bravery and cleverness. You stop and watch, and then enthusiastically applaud, turning to your spouse and whispering, “Wasn’t that great? This guy is really good.”

Then the performer pulls out his next act – a very clever magic show. He does some tricks that you haven’t exactly seen, but they are not unfamiliar. Still, he deserves another strong applause. You’ve got time, so you wait while he does a few more tricks, throwing in variety at points, juggling balls, swallowing fire. He quickly changes his costume and repeats the same trick. Then seeing your enthusiasm start to wane he bursts into a tap-dance routine, struggling to be graceful, original and frenetic all at the same time. But you’ve seen plenty of tap-dancing, and this one is not especially interesting. In fact, you start to feel that it is just a tad pathetic. He is trying so hard, you think to yourself, and for what? You take a quick look at your watch hoping he doesn’t see you, because you don’t want to be rude. You smile at your spouse with that smile that says, “I’ve seen enough. How do we get out of here?” The acts seem to be getting cheaper, requiring less skill, like little tricks with his nose that he learned in junior high, but he wont release you. Until finally, he brings out his big finale. It is somewhat of an uptick because he saved a special routine that involved playing three instruments at once and high-kicking while sparklers burn from various places. He gives a deep bow to your polite applause, and you add another dollar to the five you already stuck in his jar. You and your partner are finally free to move on.

As you walk, you guess that the guy had been toying around with a banjo for many years, and he probably took some tap lessons at some point, and read a book of magic tricks. You figure, based on the execution, that he had probably only been performing on street corners for a few months. And admittedly, you were moderately entertained.

I am not trying to be uncharitable. But in the role of the writer critiquing another writer, I am being honest. And I know someday the spotlight will be turned on to my work, and some blogger will be tearing it to shreds with greater vitriol and bile than I have done here. My wish is not to impugn Mr. Yu. He possesses more skill than most writers, and unfortunately I mean that. My desire is to reawaken readers to what once was (and perhaps still is somewhere, but just not in this book). My other desire is to inspire writers to reach ever higher. To delve as deep as possible into the well of your soul. There are short stories and novels that have the power to change you forever. Can you write one?

This is Yu’s second book – the first was a acclaimed novel. This second book is a collection of short stories. I have read that it is sort of an axiom among publishers that books of short stories simply do not sell. I don’t know if that’s true, because I know of several books of short stories that have done moderately well. And Mr. Yu’s collection has done quite well, bucking the trend. I am happy for him, and he is getting a fair bit of publicity. He was even interviewed on NPR. His popularity seems to be rooted in his ability to create new twists that brush up against some old science fiction themes.

But in view of what Faulkner said about all good literature arising from problems associated with the heart in conflict with itself, I’d have to say that only a fraction of the stories qualify as good writing. Too many are mere solipsisms – reflections on the self by alter-selves in which nothing happens except the contemplation of selfness. (In case you’re wondering, Faulkner did not mean solipsism when he said “the heart in conflict with itself.”)

It took me only 3 days to read, but not because I am a fast reader. I am not. But there is so much white space on the pages that frequently there is just very little text. One story is formatted so that there is only one sentence or paragraph in the center of the page, and you cover 40 pages in about 8 minutes. Another “story” is completely written in outline form. Another is three alter selves talking to each other about the one person they all are, but never saying anything – just getting confused. This is all just a street performer tap-dancing with all his heart – sound and fury signifying nothing.

I say, we should insist on quality. Not that lesser writers should stop writing. They should not. But what we pay money for should nourish something inside. Stop giving your time and attention to every street performer, every acrobat, every clown, every hipster with vampire makeup on. Don’t be satisfied to look at shiny tinsel mosaic. Don’t be satisfied with horror shows dripping with fake blood. Insist on real blood! Don’t even be satisfied with easy love, because easy love is usually false love – it is just as easily lost.

The best literature tells you something about yourself and about the people you share the world with. It brings you close to The Mysterious, the unspeakable things of life. It also delights you with originality and a vision beyond what you possess. It does not rely on gimmicks or hat tricks, and it doesn’t simply imitate a successful formula.

You can only read so many books in your life. I say, don’t waste time on stuff that doesn’t matter.

© 2018 Jeffrey Allen Mays

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