Write what you know.
It’s one of the first things writers hear. While we could spend hours debating the merits of this precept, one particular aspect is currently on my mind:
Is it okay to write what I know when what I know is from somebody else’s life?
Recently, a man I know – let’s call him Fred – posted on social media about a situation he and his significant other – we’ll call her Emily – are dealing with – we’ll call it The Event. The Event is Emily’s problem, and it’s not going to be resolved any time soon. Because she’s in a relationship with Fred, he’s being kind and supportive. So far, so good.
A normal empathetic person would see Fred’s post and say, “So sorry to hear about The Event. Best of luck to you both.” But writers rarely have such reactions. After all, we thrive on causing problems for our characters, and then complicating them, and then making things really bad, and then making them really really bad. If we do this well enough, the reader will stay up all night because she simply cannot put the story down until she finds out whether the character will survive, prevail, or whatever the goal is.
(Which means that the reaction to Fred’s post that I’m about to describe was not the result of some egregious moral failing, but simply a professional response, so don’t judge me.)
I read Fred’s post. My first reaction was indeed, “Gee, that’s awful.” But it was followed quickly by a less-charitable reaction, the kind writers tend to have just before they launch into a new story: “I hope he’s serious about her, because he’s stuck now.” As in, now that he’s posted about how he’s standing by her, the guy has no way out. If he decides in three months that dealing with The Event is more than he can handle, or he doesn’t really love Emily after all, or he gets a fabulous job offer in another part of the country and wants to move away, too bad for him. He’s publicly proclaimed his support. There’s no way to turn back from that without being pilloried on social media.
From there, it was a short hop down the writerly road to The Land of What-Ifs: What if Fred wasn’t serious about Emily before The Event? What if he thought they were having a casual relationship – a few laughs, some decent sex, but nothing major – and now he feels as if he’s been sucked into something he never wanted? What if he was actually on the verge of breaking up with her when The Event happened, and he still wants to, but he doesn’t think he can? What if Fred was really just trying to be a good friend, but Emily misinterpreted his kindness as love, and he doesn’t want to hurt her because he’s a nice guy and she’s under so much pressure? What if he falls in love with someone who is sweet and easy and has no Events? What if he’s not up to the task of being supportive 24/7? What are his obligations to Emily under all these scenarios?
Obviously, there are dozens of directions this story can take. For today, the question is: How much of Fred and Emily’s lives can I borrow? How far do I need to go in disguising the facts? Does it matter whether they’re likely ever to read the story (or this blog post)? Are the rules different if the person whose life you’re cribbing is likely to find out? Or is all fair in love, war, and fiction? Did Fred lose his right to gripe about someone borrowing his story when he posted it on social media? Should I just follow Anne Lamott’s advice on avoiding libel (give Fred a teeny little penis) and let the fallout be what will be?
Writers use other people’s lives as inspiration all the time. Harper Lee modeled Atticus Finch on her father and Dill on her childhood friend, Truman Capote. Mark Twain based Huckleberry Finn on a boyhood friend. On the flip side, some people lay claim to a character the writer says is fictional, as in the four lawyers who all claim to have inspired the character played by Tom Cruise in Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men. (Invoking the Anne Lamott logic: would these guys still be clamoring for credit if Daniel Kaffee had turned down Jo Galloway’s dinner invitation out of concern over his sexual shortcomings?) Is the answer to use the standard disclaimer language about the story being a work of fiction regardless of where the impetus came from?
I’ve already begun writing the Fred and Emily story, albeit with a different setting, different Event, different what-ifs. My Fred and Emily are vastly different from the real ones. Practically the only similarity is in the notion of a nice guy standing by his girlfriend in her time of difficulty. No one who knows the actual Fred or Emily would recognize them.
Writers will probably say this is fine, that I’ve done all I need to. Readers? Maybe they’ll approve, maybe not. To the people who are suddenly rethinking some of their social media posts – this is the risk of being friends with a writer. (If you unfriend me, I’ll understand. On the other hand, let me remind you that there may be upsides, especially since some of us are susceptible to bribery. If you’d like to be immortalized in my next novel as a brilliant, creative person with a slender waistline, great hair, and noble principles, a three-layer fudge cake can go a long way.)