Stop! Thief!

February 15, 2010 at 10:36 pm (Uncategorized)

The writer as brazen thief is not an uncommon image, and plenty of (ironically) honest writers are on the record admitting to various inspirations and influences that commonly include things like actual conversations between living, breathing, sometimes litigious human beings. Shucking Charlotte had an essay published in the end of 2009 edition of Meanjin on this very subject, in which she discusses with other writers the thorny issue of incorporating real lives into invented ones; I’ve not read it yet because we cut our spending on periodicals, and the State Library didn’t have it last time I was there sniffing around for it, but I will. It’s a topic that interests me a great deal, not least because I have an obsession with blurred boundaries of every description.

My own view is that I take it as a given that all writers are influenced to some extent by reality; how could they not be? The extent to which this influence is reflected in their writing is an individual matter, but my own interest in exploring contiguous boundary spaces is pretty much along the lines of a dog worrying a bone: enthusiastic, messy and insatiable. It’s inherently interesting territory: tension is always more fun for a writer than harmony, and I’m always slightly bemused by the degree to which this topic proves enduringly contentious. It’s a bit of a “Huh?” for me, because it seems so obvious that writers draw on the human condition to inform their work. Isn’t that what fiction finally hopes to achieve, some insight into our actual existence by sharing a constructed one?

Degrees, degrees, no doubt it’s all a question of degrees, but who gets to decide the line, and anyway, where is it? Intriguing stuff. Helen Garner cops so much flack for basically stomping alongside the fence kicking down palings, but I respect and appreciate her transparency on the matter – she’s totally, refreshingly upfront about her work’s foundation in fact, and she doesn’t hesitate to claim that same work as fiction. On the other hand, I don’t doubt she’s angered, alienated and hurt people over the years, and they probably didn’t volunteer to be sacrificed to her art, and I guess this is where my own line is drawn. I expect to trespass, I know that on occasion I will, but I don’t want anyone else to suffer for my own need to hack away at the line.

Still, the etiquette changes again when you’re thinking about thieving an idea you got from talking to another writer, and this is what happened to me recently. A writer friend recounted a conversation she’d had, and I said to her, “That’s the basis of a great short story.” She didn’t really react, and we moved on. Later, I couldn’t get the conversation out of my mind. I told Llew about it, and his reaction became another layer in the story that was slowly beginning to form in my mind. But I didn’t write it; I wasn’t sure if I was allowed.

Months passed, but this story stayed in the back of my mind, growing unattended, nudging its way forward. And then one day I sat down and wrote a draft of it. I had to relieve that pressure in my brain, there’s no other way to describe it. I felt vaguely sneaky, though, as though I were doing something deceitful behind my friend’s back. I thought about calling her and asking for permission to use her actual conversation as a stepping stone into my made up story, but then one horrible thought stopped me: “What if she says no?”

The thought made me sick; I really wanted to write the story I had by this time been thinking about for over six months. I also had no confidence I could do it – my short stories had always sucked, so there was a reasonable expectation that this one would suck too, and that I wouldn’t be able to transfer my thoughts into a functioning story. So I persuaded myself (yes, I did, and it turns out I am quite the saleswoman) that I should write the story first, and then deal with the consequences later.

It was at this point that I made my ethical mistake, and it’s an error of judgement I won’t ever make again. Did I show my friend the story? No, I didn’t, and by my own standards, I absolutely should have. Instead, I decided that what I’d do was enter it in a competition, and if (a massive “if” given I’ve never even been long-listed for a short story – I’m telling you, they’ve always sucked) I got anywhere, I’d share my prize money with her. It would be a total surprise (hell, prize money would be a total surprise to both of us), and I hoped she’d feel sharing the prize was adequate thanks for giving me the idea.

Except she didn’t give me the idea.

I took it.

This has been niggling away at me ever since because I knew I’d compromised my own sense of right and wrong, my own sense of fair play in an area already fraught with moral peril. I doubt it would have bothered me anywhere near as much had she not been a writer herself. ‘But,’ I eagerly told myself (whenever you have to start over-explaining and over-justifying things to yourself, just STOP, and just admit to yourself that you’re doing the wrong thing, and I guarantee it’ll save you a lot of problems later on), ‘she’s not really sounded keen on writing fiction for ages now, and she’s totally shifted focus, and I know, I just know she’s never going to use it herself, and besides, I’ve completely done my own thing with it, and it was just the light-bulb that started me thinking, so let’s not get carried away here about it because it’s a tiny part of my story, and blah blah blah.’

Anyway, I was bothered because I knew it was the wrong thing to do, it’s that simple. And when I saw my friend yesterday (for the first time, I might add, since writing the story – and see how I’m still trying to defend my actions?), I told her about it straightaway, and she came back here and read it.

“You only had to call me and ask,” she said.

“I know,” I said. “And I’m really sorry. I was afraid that you might say no, and I really wanted to write this story. But it felt like I was doing the wrong thing, it felt deceitful not telling you about it.”

“Maybe,” she said, being quite simply the most gracious person on earth, “you actually needed to do that, because it’s really tense, it really suits the atmosphere of the story, and I wonder if maybe you had to do it this way in order to write it.”

Maybe. But how generous is that? Much more generous than I deserve, and trust me, I do know that. And I’ve learned a very valuable lesson: if in doubt, discuss. I told her about my idea of splitting the prize money and she made a face and said, “You can take me to dinner. I’d never accept something like that. I was never going to use this; it completely fell from my consciousness.”

Phew. The relief of hearing those words was just HUGE. Still, I didn’t want her to think her contribution would go unacknowledged. Without that conversation, I would never have thought of my story; it’s that simple. That fundamental. Is my story fiction? You bet your arse it is. Is it mine? Bloody oath. But did a conversation my friend had trip the wire in my brain? No question.

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10 Comments

  1. Lilian Nattel said,

    I’m so glad you were able to talk to her about it and that she was fine about it. People can theoretically discuss all sorts of ethical dilemmas. But I agree with you that bottom line is your own sense of right and wrong. I think we all–I know I have–experience those kinds of moments, justifying, ignoring, or going against or own moral sense, and every one of us has to find out that it isn’t worth it. This was a cheap lesson with a happy ending.

  2. doctordi said,

    Definitely, Lilian – I think the other thing is that it’s the worst false economy, ignoring your better instincts, because whatever it is will ALWAYS catch up with you, so really, it’s much more efficient avoiding it in the first place by coming clean – or better still, not getting grubby in the first place.

    As the friend in question said after reading this post, I’d be a lousy murderer and a worse spy – I could never sustain the deception. Nor would I want to try.

  3. Grad said,

    Di, I so understand your angst on this one. An old friend of mine – an ancient lawyer – once told me I had “a scrupulous conscience,” which he found to be a bit trying at times. I’ve never been able to get away with much. I always end up “telling” on myself. It may not always be becoming, but I get a good night’s sleep. And by the by, the idea might have come from your friend, but the creation was your own.

    • doctordi said,

      Graddikins, I think I may be burdened by something similar. And it’s not entirely unselfish – I love having a clean conscience. I know I purge my misdeeds in part to make myself feel better – maybe that’s the long lapsed Catholic upbringing…

      Like you I sleep much better when I do tell on myself, except now I get insomnia all the time, and I can’t for the life of me figure out what I’ve done!

      The creation is definitely my own, and I’m proud of it, which actually became one of the core issues. I’m so unaccustomed to feeling remotely good about a short story that it was almost as though I felt the credit for it had to lie elsewhere.

  4. Norwichrocks said,

    All we can use is our own sense of right and wrong – and that will not always tally exactly with someone else’s – so perhaps the old adage of “Do as you would be done by” is the best guide.

    Anyway, good to hear that your friend responded so positively to the whole episode. It must be an enormous weight off your mind.

  5. doctordi said,

    Actually, NR, she said she was sorry to have caused me so much angst!!! And it’s true that as crimes go, I’ve heard worse. But yeah, ‘do unto others’ – that never gets old.

  6. davidrochester said,

    I’d have felt the same way you did … but it’s interesting, isn’t it, that it was such a non-issue to your friend? Perhaps, as she suggests, the tension of created guilt helped your creative process.

    It’s interesting to wonder how you would have felt had your wire been tripped by overhearing a conversation in a restaurant, for example. Was the guilt prompted by “stealing,” or by the fact that your friend is also a writer, and therefore in some way “entitled” to the material herself?

  7. doctordi said,

    David, I think it would have definitely been a much bigger issue had she earmarked it for her own use. Two things helped avert a larger crisis (well, more than that, but from her point of view I think these were the biggies): she had no thought of using it herself, and she liked my story enough to concede this idea had been put to good use.

    I think it’s a reasonable notion, that my guilt helped power the story. And as she said, it suits the piece… but the enduring lesson for me is that it showed me a much more selfish side of my creative process, a selfish me that had to write this story even at the expense of things that are extremely important to me, like trust and personal integrity. And that is concerning, to see myself behave that way. Writing is my obsession, but in that glimmer of the obsessive there’s a very unflattering self-portrait.

    Nope, I wouldn’t have cared had I overheard a conversation between two strangers in a restaurant. It was definitely the fact that a) I know her, and b) she’s a writer. I hesitate to use any material drawn from family and friends – although it’s a shame, because god knows collectively they’re a goddamn gold mine.

  8. Andrew said,

    When I was 14 and struggling with writing a story for English, I ‘borrowed’ the plot of an improvisation some friends had done in drama class. Naturally, karma being what it is, the teacher liked my story and told me to read it out to the others. My friends were NOT happy, although the teacher insisted that stories were inherently free from ownership and open to anyone who wanted to write them up in any way. And that’s the truth of the matter, I think. Stories ARE free, but you might still get a bollocking from your friends. It’s always a personal choice. Perhaps one should just be clever about choice of friends, as yours seems a delight.

  9. Andrew said,

    Oh bother this silly computer – it’s me, Litlove, not Mister Litlove.

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