“All fiction is largely autobiographical and much autobiography is, of course, fiction,” famously said English crime writer, P.D. James.
The ambiguity between what is and is not fiction is one of the aspects that most attracts readers. It is in part the challenge of gleaning insight into the author through his or her works that inspires avid readers to make their way through book after book. If Phillip Roth consistently writes about Jewish-Americans, the natural conclusion would be that some part of his novels must be based on his own experiences; if Ernest Hemingway writes of fishing and bullfighting in many of his novels, it must be because those are personal passions in his own life. Yet, when the autobiographical threads that weave their way into a writer’s work reveal information about the writer’s personal life, ethical lines begin to blur.
Writers are consistently told to “write what they know,” but when what they know involves more than just themselves, when it involves the people whom they purportedly love, are they still at liberty to write about these experiences? The vulnerability that writers show — exposing their hearts, minds, and egos for critics to do with as they please — is one of the most beautiful aspects of the craft; yet, it is unfair of writers to expect their loved ones to accept the same stakes. Whomever is telling the story has the privilege of selecting what pieces of his or her own life best bring a sense of genuine emotion and painstaking reality to the piece, yet the voiceless characters of the author’s own life remain at the mercy of the writer’s keyboard.
Joan Didion is famous for encouraging writers to mine their personal notebooks for possible literary gems — transforming her period of mourning after the death of her husband into a National Book Award, with The Year of Magical Thinking. Rather than attempting to mask her distinctive brand of nearly journalistic storytelling, Didion unabashedly acknowledges, “writers are always selling somebody out” (Didion xiv). Yet, few writers are willing to accept blame for caving to the pressures of critical success—if not financial success — by exposing their loved ones to ridicule and judgment. The literary world ridicules creative writers who move to Hollywood to write screenplays for being “sell outs,” but a writer who hopes to see his words awakened on the big screen (while bringing home a big check) is no less of a visionary than a writer who plagiarizes his or her stories from other peoples’ lives. Authors may alter details and change names of the characters in their real lives for fictional purposes, but the shadows of loved ones are doubtlessly recognized by intimates — and literary critics should their books ever attain that level of fame.
In writing about themselves, authors accept the risk of forfeiting their privacy, of surrendering their personal intimacies, all in the name of their craft and for the benefit of their work. Danielle Berrin poses the question, “I know there are life experiences I will one day put to words that people who shared in them might prefer never to be published. Is that immoral? I’m not sure. But it’s life.” What she describes, however, is not life for all — it is merely the life of a writer. For a psychologist to expose a client’s secret would be a breach in the client-patient confidentiality with professional and legal repercussions; for a lawyer to undermine the privilege of the lawyer-client relationship and reveal information shared by a client would result in his or her disbarment. Yet writers have no hard and fast set of guiding rules to help them differentiate between what personal experiences they are at liberty to disclose in their work, and what they should allow to remain private.
Praising a lover’s chill-inducing smile and guitar-calloused hands or writing of the ecstasy that is lying on a rooftop enjoying midnight apple pie while buried in his arms are generally permissible; it’s negative portrayals that necessitate deeper consideration of the potential interpersonal abuse and exploitation. Just as no intriguing character is merely black and white, so neatly pigeonholed into a single characterization, so too is the issue of writing about the ones you love more complicated than “you are free to write about them in a positive light, but morally banned from writing about them critically.” This over simplification begins to break down as soon as one attempts to define what exactly would constitute a positive or a negative character depiction. The disintegration continues when one begins to consider how literally or loosely a character resembles the people in the writer’s own life; in most writing the blending between fiction and memoir are relatively subtle, giving way to an ethical grey space.
Of course the most simple resolution to the complex issue of how or if writers should write about the ones they love would be simply to decide no — personal lives should remain sacred and untainted by literary ambition. Unlike journalists, however, authors do not have the privilege of simply slipping in and out of the research mode; the people whom they come to know most intimately are the ones whom they inevitably end up writing about in some form or another.
If writers are such idealists that they (for the most part) are willing to forsake future financial security in the name of doing what they love, it could be assumed that they would also be willing to keep their notebooks out of the bedroom in the name of maintaining the intimacy and trust of the ones they love. Yet, it is because writers have obsessively catered to their craft, allowing their authorial sensibilities seep into the crevices of their most passionate romances, dearest friendships, and most toxic relationships, that readers can find such solace in their pages and feel such connection to an otherwise unknown writer in times of greatest confusion and despair. Even if it is personal passion and aspiration — not altruism — that guides writers to craft their most revealing stories, the sense of openness and honesty that writers are able to infuse into the stories can help readers heal the wounds that they had previously thought were theirs and theirs alone.
At times it may begin to seem that being a faithful and committed lover is at odds with creating riveting, authentic prose. How can one give his or her whole heart to another—whether its body pulses with blood or with words — without sacrificing the other? As is true for all aspects of writing, there is no singular answer that solves the dilemma for all writers; there is not even a singular answer as to what standards apply to all people written about by a single writer. What literature does pose to its patrons, however, is a reminder about responsibility and unwavering adherence to personal ethics. Just as few responsible couples would get married without first having discussed their positions about shared finances and parenting responsibilities, so too do lovers have a responsibility to one another to discuss artistic ownership over a relationship. No matter how far from romantic such pragmatic discussions may be, no one deserves to deal with the emotional and printed baggage of loving a writer without at least having a warning. Writers owe it to themselves and their loved ones to establish a personal code of ethical writing, clarifying what sort of material should be fair game, what can be used only with permission, and what measures of alteration and distortion must be taken to transform material from the later category into usable material for the first category. As writers are supposedly masters in empathy, their combination of creativity and insight can distill any experience into an inoffensive literary gem.