Chicago, 2012, AWP Conference
I entered a cavernous room with white, ornate walls. A hundred people sat in petite, metal, folding chairs with even more crammed against the sides. I stood in the back, not sure of who was talking. I had never heard of any of them. I knew they each wrote some form of nonfiction though. I knew what they were discussing. I knew it was important to me.
They were talking about writing about the people you know.
It’s a complicated and often sore subject in art, not just writing. It’s a matter of ethics, personal preference, relationships, and creating. There are a few viewpoints on this matter. Ultimately, what you choose is completely up to you. Here, in my own words, are what they covered at this conference:
- It Doesn’t Matter.
This will always be a favorite of mine. I won’t do it, but a favorite nonetheless.
It’s the shamelessness of it that gets me, I think. I can just imagine someone tossing back their hair, wind blowing through it, a smile brushed across their face, and a whole bunch of upset people crying or not talking to them. Anyone and everyone is fair game when it comes to your work. This is not for everyone, not for the faint of heart or those with weak constitutions.
The real thing here is, who cares? Because the truth is the truth and it will get out eventually. I think it’s commendable to be able to create without allowing others to limit you and also potentially be able to smooth over any bumps that may occur in your relationships. Again, I couldn’t do this, but kudos.
- As Long As They Know
There’s a theory that as long as the people in your life know that they could be the subject of your work, it’s ok to use them. It’s more of an implied warning, but I recommend being straightforward if you want to go for an approach. Let them know by telling them. Some people wait for permission after they know, but in this instance it’s just the idea of knowing that gets you off the hook, supposedly. If they choose to stay in your life, then it’s pretty much their fault.
- As Long As They Consent
It’s a personal thing, writing about people. This concept revolves around asking permission. If it’s a no, you can’t do anything. If it’s a yes, you’re allowed to either assume this is a go ahead for all future works or just this specific one. I would go with the former, but cautiousness sides with the latter.
- As Long As They Agree
This is common practice, actually. The idea is that you check what you’ve made with the person in question. If they agree with the story you’ve told or the image you’ve constructed, then you’ve been green lit. If not, then you’ve run into a problem, and you can either scrap the whole thing or get it to agree with them. I, personally, am against this one as a memoirist. Memory is a subjective thing. One person’s experience is not ubiquitous; it doesn’t carry over to the other people involved, not exactly. Again, up to you.
- As Long As It’s Accurate
This is similar to number 4. Again, you can ask their permission here, but it’s not necessary. I prescribe to this one, for some reason. In this instance, you check for factual accuracy, lining up your recollection with theirs and getting historical information down as well. But you shouldn’t change your story because it doesn’t match up with someone else’s in this case. What you’re aiming for here is greater accuracy. Don’t completely change your memory because someone doesn’t agree with you.
Still, you don’t want errors in your writing. At least, having dates and basic circumstances down as close to what they really are/were is important to me, and should be important to you too. If you do this, then you’re good to go.
- As Long As They’re Dead
I think this one is self explanatory. Not applicable to people you don’t know.
I listened to these people for over an hour, my legs beginning to lose feeling. Their voices rose, echoing. No one could agree. Some of them worried about other people, and others didn’t. Alienation will always be a possibility. In fact, it’s a right of passage. Everyone who writes or uses the people they know in their work will have to come face to face with this, sometimes more literally than others. It’s important to know how you’re going to handle this, but even more so to not let it hinder what you’re doing.
Don’t stop. Won’t stop. #sorrynotsorry.