In this craft essay, nonfiction writer Rachael Greene explores the ethics of borrowing from your life and the life of others in your writing. “The ethics remain frustratingly subjective,” she writes, but still there are paths for all of us to consider Greene explores the advice of experts as well as recent controversies surrounding the inclusion of others’ experiences in published work.
As writers, we pull from our lives, and sometimes, necessarily, from the lives of others for our work. Regardless of your genre, you have inevitably encountered a dilemma of how to incorporate real-life events—and people—in a way that honors both the story you want to tell as well as the people and relationships implicated. Nonfiction writer Melissa Febos says in her essay, “A Big Shitty Party,” “There are some details in a grown child’s life that no parent is meant to know…. Unfortunately, my writing career has made it impossible for me to spare my own parents.” A writing career, no matter how carefully orchestrated, makes it equally impossible to spare the people in our lives from scrutiny. The question is, how do we respect and uphold our relationships (past and present) while still honoring our art?
It’s easy to imagine how writing about people can backfire. Publishing houses have built-in legal reviews for nonfiction books and memoirs that directly mention living persons for this very reason. However, direct mention is not the only way to write about someone, and certainly not the only way to upset them. In the explosive New York Times article “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?” reporter Robert Kolker uncovers, in salacious detail, the degree to which things can escalate when a writer incorporates aspects of another person’s life without that person’s permission.
The saga of the Bad Art Friend centers around Sonya Larson and Dawn Dorland, both regulars at the GrubStreet writing center. In 2015 Larson penned a short story in which one of the characters donates a kidney to an anonymous recipient, a generous endeavor that Dorland in fact undertook months earlier, and documented on her Facebook page, which Larson followed. When Dorland heard about Larson’s story and reached out, Larson responded carefully: “I hope it doesn’t feel too weird for your gift to have inspired works of art.” This eloquent response (and admission) did not seem like a transgression until Dorland read the story and discovered a passage that was fashioned, nearly verbatim, after a post from her Facebook page.
After the story picked up steam—it was recorded as an audio version and won a national award—Dorland took legal action, suing Larson and threatening to sue the Boston Book Festival for promoting it. Over the course of the legal proceedings, which are sensationalized in the Kolker article, Larson in turn sued Dorland for defamation, and Dorland filed a counterclaim. Years later, both writers are still mired in a debate that seems to have veered far from the original question: Who owns a story?
Another piece that blurred the ethical lines of writing is “Cat Person,” the viral #MeToo short story by Kristen Roupenian, which, it later came out, was loosely based on the experiences of Alexis Nowicki, a woman Roupenian had never met. “Cat Person” tells the story of a woman who rejects a man after a sexual encounter only to be harassed by him. In an essay written years after the piece went viral, Nowicki reveals the eerie parallels to her own life as well as the convoluted way her story had been co-opted by Roupenian via the man who inspired the story’s villain. The circuitous and unintended consequences of “Cat Person” raise questions about a writer’s responsibility not only to the individuals who appear in a story, but for where writers get their inspiration.
Both Dorland and Nowicki found out that their lives had been used as creative fodder only after the stories had been made public. Though Dorland was tipped off by a fellow writer before Larson’s story was published, it had already made the rounds with a circle of her peers in the GrubStreet writing group, and Larson did not consult with her before the story was released publicly. Nowicki first read “Cat Person” while she was riding the subway, missing her stop as she saw elements of her own life play out in a stranger’s voice. Although Dorland and Nowicki have additional, and different, grievances with the stories, it begs the question: Had they known or been given the opportunity to review the stories ahead of publication, could it have changed the outcome?
In Katy Waldman’s essay for the New Yorker, “Who Owns a Story?” she references Elizabeth Bishop’s reaction to Robert Lowell’s poetry collection, “The Dolphin,” which borrows directly from letters between him and his ex-wife and writer Elizabeth Hardwick. In a letter to Lowell, Bishop explains that he has committed a violation, concluding, “art just isn’t worth that much.” This question—whether the art is worth it or not—is at the heart of this discussion. While the decision can be influenced by others, the power of the mighty pen ultimately lies with us—and it should not be wielded lightly.
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For those of us seeking to be conscientious in our writing practices, the ethics remain frustratingly subjective. As early as the drafting phase, it can be difficult to push aside the worries of how a piece will impact the people in our lives—To me, this is the most paralyzing form of writer’s block. However, a first draft is far too early to fret over a story’s reception. When Melissa Febos shared the manuscript of her memoir, Whip Smart, with her mother ahead of publication—the book featured her time as a professional dominatrix as well as sensitive details from her upbringing—her mother’s only quibble was with the timeline for when Febos had moved out. “This, and many other similar instances,” Febos says, “has taught me that it is difficult to predict what will upset people.” For her, this reinforces the “most often repeated advice” she has heard about writing: “…write the book first. Write it before you consider how your mom might feel when she reads it. Write it before you start pruning details that will hurt the people you love, or no longer love but care not to hurt.” It follows that perhaps the best guide for writing comes not from our anticipation of a story’s reception, but the story itself.
There is a sanctity to writing uninhibited which must be defended for any story to survive past infancy. A story’s growth can be just as easily stunted by inner (or imagined) criticism as withering external criticism early on. The best way to protect an infant writing project is to dedicate—to yourself as much as others—that you don’t share first drafts. This is not to say that the first draft won’t be the draft you eventually share, but making this commitment goes a long way toward protecting the creative space necessary to write without hesitation.
Giving a story the space and autonomy to reveal itself in the drafting stage can make revision that much more clarifying, particularly when it comes to deciding which elements must stay, even at the risk of upsetting other people. As Alexander Chee asks in his essay, “On Becoming an American Writer,” “Is the person listening more important than you? Or is the story you would tell more important than you?” Writing leads to self-discovery, not all of it rosy. Sometimes we must follow a story’s lead even when it goes against our interests.
Speaking about the legal review of her memoir, Melissa Febos says, “One of the things I observed is that when a detail felt cruel, the prose was almost always better off without it.” In 2021 I attended a Professional Development Weekend hosted by Queens University of Charlotte. In a workshop led by agent and former executive editor of Henry Holt, Barbara Jones, she addressed a part of my submission where I mentioned a place and person unkindly by declaring I had not been a “fair god of the page.” I don’t believe Barbara invented this phrase, nor that she was the first to use it in a writing workshop, but with it she showed me how unethical it is for writers—ultimate decision-makers—to only give one side of a story. When I revisited the chapter in revision, I realized the entire anecdote was unnecessary—an indulgent jab that was cathartic to write but served no purpose in the story.
Yet another reason to protect the sacred first draft is that it allows us that catharsis—before we can be asked to be fair gods of the page, we must first be human.
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Memoirist Mary Karr outlines her best practices in the chapter, “Dealing with Beloveds (On and Off the Page)” from her craft book, Art of Memoir. While I find all her advice on this matter sage, I focus here on parts that apply to multiple genres, not just memoir.
Perhaps the boldest and most revolutionary practice I’ve learned from Karr is giving a copy of the completed manuscript (or applicable sections) to the people who appear in it. If you, like me, fantasize about ways to avoid loved ones ever reading our work—imagine, a publishing house that prints redacted copies—Karr’s advice to willingly share manuscripts with our subjects ahead of publication may seem radical. However, reflecting on the Bad Art Friend and Cat Person scandals, this may be the single most effective practice to avoid betraying a subject’s trust. No one likes to be taken off guard, especially not publicly.
Related to this: “On pain of death, don’t show pages to anybody mid-process. You want them to see your best work, polished.” This extends your protection over the first draft to the revision process as well, which, though it may include other people, should not include the subjects themselves. Your loved ones are likely not seasoned editors, and if they are, they still should not be expected to remain objective on a piece they feature in. Additionally, the prouder you are of your work, the more likely your subjects are to be proud of their appearance in it.
Karr—and I—strongly advise against making promises to remove or change anything based on subjects’ feedback. Karr does say that she would “cut anything that someone just flat-out denies,” but beyond that, don’t put yourself in a position where you’re forced to make a change that compromises the work. Although we might imagine individuals demanding sweeping changes, Karr emphasizes that in all the years she has given her subjects the chance to nix something, “no one has yet.” Simply giving someone the opportunity to weigh in can go a long way toward making them feel respected and empowered rather than exposed and used.
Other valuable tips from Karr include allowing your friends choose their own pseudonyms and signaling to the reader within the writing that your view is subjective. This last one is (or should be) common practice for memoirists, however, if there is an opportunity to indicate that there are multiple sides to something, it is always best to do so.
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In Alexander Chee’s book, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, he quotes Aristotle on the difference between history and poetry: “‘…the poet’s job is not relating what actually happened, but rather the kind of thing that would happen…. For this reason poetry is more philosophical and more serious than history; poetry utters universal truths, history particular statements,’” (italics mine). Chee uses this idea as an inroad to write a fictionalized account of his own childhood sexual abuse. With this fictional story he hopes to do more than merely relay the events themselves but use his experience to reveal some greater truth about humanity. Perhaps about himself.
In the title essay of the book, he advises:
Use the names of neither the willing nor the unwilling. Especially those who will change from willing to unwilling once the novel is published and they understand what they have given you.
Know that this may be anyone, even you.
You do this because you must betray this character in the way all writers betray all of their characters, done to reveal the ways they are human.
While Chee is referring specifically to fiction, this is just as true of nonfiction. Although we may use real people and real-life events, we set out to capture their universality, not their chronology. We do not write merely to exact revenge or air grievances, but to reveal something about humanity. Something only our stories can reveal.
Perhaps this is the ultimate guiding principle for writing about life and the people in it—What can you reveal that no one else can about the ways in which we are human?
Or, said another way—
Are you capturing the poetry in life? Or are you merely writing a history?
Rachael Greene is a nonfiction Appalachian writer living in Austin, Texas. She received an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. Her work can be found in the Southern Review of Books and Another Chicago Magazine. She is currently working on a book about her childhood in rural North Georgia. Find her on Instagram @greenepen