Thoughts about the ethics of writing another. 

We write fiction, but within all fiction lies the truth that inspired it – a moment, a character, a memory, a setting. There is no purity in fiction. Its themes betray it. It came from somewhere, from someone. There is no hiding it. Then, what are the ethics of stealing bits and pieces of reality to reimagine people, words, and narrative lines?

I took a class several years ago with the brilliant and distant Selah Saterstrom. We were discussing space, purpose, and location within the art of contemporary fiction – a fancy way of saying that where we were inspires and dicates the mediums through which we write. There is no escaping it. The past, our past, concealed within the veil of fiction breaks free and finds a way to emerge, regardless of our vain attempts to keep it buried. It returns again and again, each time a little more disfigured, more deformed, less human. It devours the present – a necessary sacrifice for the yet unknown future. 

All fiction is a zombie. 

There is another sacrifice, of course – those who populate the past and persist within the present. Friends, family, strangers. Do they know that you will write them as you remember them? Do they realize that their lives, choices, words, and memories are foder for your desperate prose? Would they approve of being written, being re-imagined in the mind of a reader? Can they stand being misinterpreted? 

I have made the decision, but have they? What right do I have, as an author, to reimagine lives that are still living? 

It was an ethical concern. There were two extremes that emerged from our discussions. One – that relationships are just another sacrifice to be placed on the altar of fiction. A good story, a real story, a meaningful story, is more necessary, more important, than the will, emotions, and connections between human beings.

The other? That there is no right within fiction to steal and recreate the lives of others.

I fell somewhere in the middle. Selah confided in us that, after the publication of her first novel, she lost the trust and her relationship with several members of her family. While true, while beautifully written, they felt betrayed and naked, laid bare upon the altar of fiction in pursuit of grants, teaching contracts, and literary fame.

When writing dialogue, sitting in a coffee house, eyeing characters who could be borne unexpectedly from the gait and bodies of strangers who had caught my eye, I felt guilt. How dare I steal his hat, his face, her words, for my own potential mis-use? How dare I write them well – or badly.

 

Then, I began writing a novel. It will never be complete. But still, I am writing it. And while it is fiction, it contains my memories, each character drawn up through the darkness and reimagined in the present. My grandfather, my mother, my father – I have taken their words and trust and betrayed it. I have outed them – a hopeless alcoholic who hides behind empty promises of redemption, a strong man with hard hands who finds meaning under the hoods of cars and up the skirts of young women, a workaholic trapped and rolled between sheets of sketching paper, a genius lost and buried in a small town where he is comforted by mediocricy, a woman who runs and runs in circles through her mother’s past, running as far as possible from any future…these are our secrets.

My own are even more desperate, darker, bitter. There is humor and there is also joy. Can I write it all, preserve it in all its glorious, messy humanity? If I write the past, I liberate and thus realize my future. But at what cost? What is a good story worth?

I turned to nonfiction, composing articles for several magazines, conducting interviews. Upon publication, the subjects of our stories were happy and yet, removed and discontent. They didn’t like the way that they were written. A story of redemption was too sad – I’m not like that, she told me. I’m not a sad person. 

But you were, I thought. You told a story of failure and struggle, a struggle that lead to eventual triumph and possibility. Your past was not one of joy, but rather, one of despair and redemption through art. 

I can’t escape the question or the dilemma. Whatever medium I compose, writing itself depends upon a balance between sacrifice and truth. How much truth is too much? How much are we willing to sacrifice for the integrity of a story? A good ending? A best seller?

There are no answers – just questions. As I prepare to finish that desperate, terrible yet wonderful novel – my mother’s island, my father’s dream house, my grandfather’s cabin lost by the lake – have I stolen too much, taken too freely, from someone else? Am I a thief or am I simply a writer? 

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