A word about my father: If there’s anyone I’ve written about directly it would be him, a born salesman who sold furniture for fifty years, working since he was thirteen and taking over as head of the family when his father died. And who called me Stevie all my life, as in Stevie, tell me everything, and then would cut me off after the first sentence with “That reminds me of when I was in Paris!” and launch into his own tale. I remember his reading one of my stories, clearly based on him, slapping the book closed afterward, shaking his head with great mirthful incredulity and proclaiming about the main character, “Can you imagine anyone acting this way!”
There are two kinds of families: those who see themselves in everything you write and those who never do. Fortunately, regarding my father at least, the mirror was always opaque. It affords a great freedom, especially when your material is largely drawn from your family. The other option is to say the hell with it and write about them anyway, under the threat of being disowned or, maybe worse, subjected to their hard, enduring silence, as if you were not an author but the family exhibitionist.
Joyce Carol Oates, who’s received her share of criticism for using—some would say exploiting—the tragedies of real people in her fiction, writes in the New York Times that it’s a murky issue ethically and legally as to who has the right to publish private letters. Oates cites the case of Robert Lowell who included intimate letters from his ex-wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, in a book of his poems. When asked what gave him the right to do this without her permission, Lowell responded, “Why not say what happened?” Oates goes on to warn “that anyone who confides in any writer risks being transmogrified into art if he or she is sufficiently interesting. The best protection,” she advises, “is to be dull, bland, and predictable.”
But when exactly does a private experience become a public fact? At what point does the private boundary protecting the material dissolve?
About six months ago I gave a reading of a story that used some facts, and I mean the straight facts, about an accident that was fatal for a colleague’s wife. My colleague, Dick, and his wife had been driving to their family farm in Nebraska from Colorado when they were hit broadside by another car driven by an elderly lady. My colleague’s car overturned and in the immediate aftermath, while they were upside down, still in their seat belts, he asked his wife if she were okay and she answered, “I don’t think so.” Those were her last words.
There was another detail I used: Because the car was totaled and their luggage along with it, Dick, who was staying in a motel across from the local hospital, had to wash the clothes he’d been wearing in the motel room sink, wring out the blood, and put them back on again. I didn’t hear these facts from Dick directly but they were well known within the department.
At the reading I knew it wasn’t a good sign when one of my closest friends, a colleague, too, left immediately afterward and didn’t contact me until a few days later to say he was upset about my using the details of Dick’s wife’s death in the story; he felt the story didn’t rise to the appropriate level of seriousness to justify using such intimate and tragic details. It would have been easy, my colleague pointed out, to change these facts about the accident.
But that’s the point: it would have been too easy if not right, right for me, that is.
The fact is I was very affected by what happened to Dick and his wife. I’d known them for years and like everyone felt great affection for them. But Dick was an English professor, not a geologist as in my story; he didn’t have children as the main character does in my story; and he and Sally were not on the verge of divorce as was the situation for the husband and wife in the story I wrote. So why not change the other “real” details?
Because they’re the very ones that made me believe in the story enough to write it in the first place, the cornerstone of its imagined existence. And of its promise. Put another way: to include those true details is a constant reminder that a person’s life is on loan to you to make use of—good use—as a character. Implicit in that agreement is that the author honors the compact by not blowing the opportunity. Have you trivialized those true details taken? Made fodder of the person’s life for gossip? Extracted only spiteful revenge without redeeming artfulness? Or just as bad, falsely glorified or sentimentalized someone by a poor treatment of the material? Yes, it’s a sort of tacit agreement with the person whose life you use, but it’s a covenant of one, and only the author knows when it’s broken. Though it might seem like stubbornness, my insistence on keeping the actual details are a footprint of the world the story came from and a lasting mark for me of its necessity to exist.
The question arises, of course, why didn’t I show Dick the story first before I published it? Chances are he would have given his approval. Was it because I feared he wouldn’t like it? Be offended? Threaten to sue? I didn’t show him the story for the reason I don’t check with anyone before I write something: If I did, I’d be wanting preapproval. But fiction doesn’t work like that; there are no guarantees that it will be acceptable, and to seek such assurances out in advance is to deceive oneself about the difficulty of the work ahead. Writing with someone’s okay in mind places you in the position of having made a bargain with an outsider. No matter how much you try to put that person out of your mind—and your writing—he or she will become an unseen influence, a faux collaborator, a silent colluder. I have to put myself, my family, and my friends on the line every time I sit down to write. And I have to determine each time whether “it’s worth it”—those three nagging words—to those I might harm, offend, or embarrass in the process. Any writer telling you otherwise is lying to himself.
The answer will never be easy. Some people, such as my father, no matter how much you cull directly from their lives, never will be troubled. Others never forget or forgive the invasion of their privacy. Perhaps, though, it’s not so much invasion as distortion that bothers people when it comes to fiction. With nonfiction, people often resent the sheer naked exposure of themselves. But in fiction, it’s more, So that’s what you think of me! The mousy face; the dirty, limp hair; the purple-veined nose. And my dog is not fat and he doesn’t have an overbite! In fiction perception is character and makes no attempt to be otherwise objective. So the question and challenge in fiction becomes how successful the writer is at freeing the character from the person. If there turns out to be on balance more person than character, then you’ve shortchanged both the writing and the individual whose life you’ve appropriated.
Yes, I could have changed the specifics of the accident, not made it happen in Nebraska, not had Dick washing his bloody clothes out in the sink, substituted instead parallel facts—after all these true details amounted to only a couple hundred words at the most out of the seven thousand in the story—but these “actual” details were the very ones that gave me permission to write the story. That is, the permission to write about anything, whether it be another’s gender or race or history, your family secrets, the illness your child almost died from, any of the tender, difficult, and personal subjects, this permission comes not from the outside but from oneself.
I’m not sure what that appropriate level of seriousness a work of fiction has to reach to justify using someone else’s tragedy. Who of course is to be a judge? You can’t worry about any of this as a writer or you’ll never write a lick of anything from another’s life that’s become personal to you. Something about that life holds something vital and precipitating for you as a writer, and there may be no way to excuse it other than to say Thank you, I apologize, Vaya con dios, and Please contact my lawyer. Invading one’s privacy in writing is a very complicated issue. Families are ripped asunder for such actual or perceived transgressions. But all writers committed to the process have to wrestle with the question of using the lives of others and deciding whether they can live with choices that offend more than please, risk being misunderstood more than celebrated, and justify themselves only to themselves.