I know, kind of a stretch, right? This is my final post for the April A to Z Challenge, and hey, Z is tough. But let me reassure you – I am not into that whole Walking Dead thing. Zombies just never have done it for me. However, there is one way in which they relate to what I’m doing that I can discuss. And that is the old writing maxim: Write it like they’re dead.
This typically applies to nonfiction work: memoirs, biography and the like. Most of the time, someone writing a biography has the cooperation of their subject, so it’s not an issue. But what do you do when you want to write a memoir – ostensibly about your own experience – and in come all those other people in your life, and you find you have to write about them, too?
I went to an excellent panel at AWP (I know, really, this is the last mention!) on Privacy of Secondary Characters. If you are writing creative nonfiction, memoir, or even poetry, you have to consider this. Or if there’s a chance that your best friend will recognize herself in your novel, I guess it would apply there too. But the bottom line is, it really doesn’t matter.
If you are worried about how others will respond to your work, then you have two choices: either don’t write it, or write it like they’re dead. You can’t create this work worrying about what others will think, even if they are explicitly mentioned in the work. One quote from the panel stands out: “The only authorization is the ethos of art.” Which is to say, you will get no authorization, nor do you need to. Unless you are portraying someone as criminal, you can’t worry about it. (And if you are, that’s a whole different story.)
Other tidbits from this session (it really was excellent) include:
1. Make the writing worth the cost (if it’s that good, who’s going to argue?)
2. Don’t worry about defacing the Family Scroll (a hypothetical scroll of family history on which you don’t want to make a black mark)
3. There’s no such thing as writing honestly about yourself and not doing justice to others.
4. You cannot ultimately predict how anyone will respond (panelists had stories of responses very different than they had envisioned, some good, some from different people than they had expected)
5. Compassion + mercy + forgiveness can come back around to the authors.
6. The subject and writer are in this together, even if the subject has a lot more to lose.
7. We do it, we do it imperfectly, but don’t kid yourself there’s no cost to anyone.
I guess then it’s all about your risk tolerance. How much of a risk are you willing to take? What might the costs be of your craft? There is, of course, always a cost. How do you weigh that against not performing your craft?
As I said, this has mostly to do with nonfiction, but you might also consider this if you are writing fiction. I had an idea for a novel a while back that would have been very transparent to my best friend, about a woman whose dad was dying of cancer. The new book I’m working on is actually about my best friend, who herself died of cancer. It is nonfiction. I have considered how her mom might feel about it, or her husband or her son. But I honestly can’t worry about that. Also, they don’t read much or go to book events, or read reviews. So there is really little chance that they would actually know about the book unless I told them. I am torn.
What is your responsibility to your subjects? Is their story just out there for the taking? How do you reconcile that if your story is inextricably intertwined with theirs?
There are so many questions. It’s an ethical question, to be sure. And a good discussion could be had on ethics in art.
What say you?