The other night I was doing what I do all too often after a long day: watching crime shows on TV. My tastes run fairly low. CSI, Criminal Minds, NCSI, and, my personal favorite, Special Victims Unit. I am capable of marathoning any of these shows, but that night was the nadir. On Wednesdays my husband works late, and there’s no one to stop me. I’d already spent two or three hours watching heinous crimes depicting women in various states of torment and decay. My excuse to myself was that I was mulling something over—something that disturbed me more than threats of bondage and mutilation.
That afternoon I’d been working on a short story that I was enjoying, but it contained a problem. It was loosely based on an argument I’d had with a neighbor regarding the pruning of our backyard tree. It seems that I had miscalculated what his share should be in terms of caring for the ancient oak tree whose branches and shade we both enjoyed. I’d proposed an even three-way split that included the family in whose yard the tree actually sits. The wife in that family was ill and so I’d taken this financial task upon myself. And then I received the email.
I liked this neighbor and was stunned when he sent me a three paragraph harangue for setting a precedent regarding the oak as communal property that required equal fiscal responsibility. It seemed that I had assumed powers that were not mine to assume. He’s an accountant and I’m not. Enough said. Why not pick up the phone? Or talk to me in person? Instead he’d thrown the book at me. After my initial shock, I did what I normally do when someone sends me something of this nature. I filed it away. I have a special folder for such matters. It’s called “MISC IDEAS.”
Now, I was faced with a moral dilemma. This neighbor, with whom I’ve gone holiday caroling, voted for the same political candidates, swapped recipes, and become Facebook friends, had inadvertently given me the germ of a story and, the closer I got to feeling good about the story, the worse I felt about writing it. How could I draw from what had transpired between us—even if it really wasn’t about us anymore at all, but merely a springboard to say something about love and loss, mortality and the human condition? I tried changing tree pruning into sidewalk repair or loud music, but the impact just wasn’t the same. It had to be a tree. And the accountant really couldn’t become a dentist, could he?
The previous Sunday, I’d voiced my concern about the story with another neighbor, a good friend who also happens to be a reporter at a major metropolitan newspaper. I’d already shown him the angry email. Over brunch I told him that I was going to write a thinly veiled story based on the incident. “Oh, no,” he said. “You can’t do that. You’ll have to move away.”
That Wednesday evening, guilt and fear were getting the better of me. I lay on my couch, paralyzed, watching body after body being sliced and diced and reassembled on a coroner’s metal table. I was pondering my dilemma as Detectives Stabler and Benson collared a rape suspect and Stabler read him his Miranda rights.
You have the right to remain silent.
Anything you say can, and will, be used against you.
This time those words struck a chord. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it before. This is what I needed to explain to my neighbor in a language he’d understand.
Most civilians don’t really grasp what writers do. They think we stare out the window and make up things in our heads. It doesn’t occur to them (until it’s too late) that we are scavengers. We pick at any flesh on the bones that will feed our stories. We gather scraps and junk, detritus of what others discard. We are hoarders of the gritty details of people’s lives. That snippet about the family with the color-coded towels. The woman whose million-dollar home, carved into a cliff, didn’t contain a single item of food. The husband whose wife caught him cheating when she saw their E-ZPass bill. (How many times do you need to cross the George Washington Bridge in a week anyway?) We may as well be going out on a Sunday morning with a metal detector, scouring the playground for any tiny treasures left behind.
But it isn’t the object we cherish as much as our need to transform it. Much as the visual artist finds objects on the street that work their way into a collage. This is at the heart of the very process of writing. We aren’t just appropriating people’s lives. Recently I received a letter about a short story I’d published. The writer said that he was impressed to see that my father was such a patient man. He wasn’t. If my father had morphed into a patient man in my story, then that was because it suited my needs. My father was anything but patient.
But if, God forbid, a reader finds him or herself in your story, they are rarely understanding. It’s not really you, the writer protests. It’s just somebody who looks and acts a lot like you, and maybe lives not that far from where you grew up and majored in college in essentially what you majored in. But it’s not really you. It’s a concoction of my imagination. All of this, usually, is to no avail. How can we explain to those whose lives we pilfer that a story, no matter how close it may feel to truth, is a made-up thing?
Tell this to my cousin, who stopped speaking to me when I referred to her as “wild in her youth” (she was, at the time, in her fifties) in a short story. Or to my late father, who found some of his tirades pop up in an article in New Woman magazine that his secretary thought he’d enjoy, so she put it on his desk. People do recognize themselves in our stories. Maybe they don’t see their whole selves but they’ll see someone who has blue eyes and a round face, or is left-handed and who maybe drinks a little too much after work, or is having an affair with one of his students, and bingo. The reader will have a eureka moment: Ah, that’s me.
What’s a writer to do? In life we are all told to go get some experience. Join the merchant marine. Sail around the world as Melville did. Go to war. But some writers have their experiences at home in the safety (or danger) of their families, among neighbors and friends. Shouldn’t eavesdropping be a legitimate research tool? If someone is talking loudly near me on their cell phone, I have no compunction about writing that conversation down and labeling it “for future use.”
There’s a sad anecdote I recall hearing about Marilyn Monroe. When she married Arthur Miller, the playwright, she made him promise to never write about her, and he swore he wouldn’t. Then one day, when she was pregnant with their child, she went to his desk during an argument and found reams and reams of pages—all things she had said to him. Dialogue he would later use in the play he wrote about her after they split up, After the Fall. It is said that reading those pages led to her falling down the basement stairs and having a miscarriage.
We all have fights or experience weird betrayals or are told things in confidence. We promise we won’t tell anyone; but does that mean we won’t write about it? Can a writer really be forced to sign a nondisclosure agreement with the universe? Some of the writers I admire most in this world—Alice Munro, John Cheever, John Updike, Eudora Welty, Joyce Carol Oates, to name a few—have drawn very specifically from the places where they live and from those who live around them. They might have shared a mint julep or a beer with their characters on their front porch.
I doubt that Queequeg would show up on Alice Munro’s doorstep, but the lady from the church who makes very good butter tarts could. I wonder if that lady knows that if she tells Alice Munro a secret, some form of it might appear in a major magazine. It is the occupational hazard of being friends with a writer.
I’ve been on both sides of this coin, and I have to say I prefer that of the author. It’s definitely the more privileged spot. Better viewing. During a difficult time in my life, a well-known writer became my best friend. It’s not that we weren’t already friends, but now she was what some might call my BFF. I’ll call her C. Because this was before email, and I was living in another part of the country, C wrote me long letters almost every week, expressing concern for my well-being.
I replied in kind. I told her of my troubles. I spared no details. C was so willing to listen and offer her advice. I shared it all: the sordid relationship, the fatherless child, an unbearable job, the city where I had no friends and where I spent the better part of days wondering if couldn’t just fling myself off a nearby cliff.
And C wrote to me of life back in New York and of the man in my life. She knew him and she knew what he was up to. She felt the only honest thing was that I should know. So we wrote and I felt somewhat assuaged and lifted by her concern. Then I moved back to New York. I called C, but got no reply. I sent postcards; no answer. Then one day a friend mentioned in passing that he assumed he’d see me at C’s holiday party, to which I wasn’t invited. What had I done? Had I betrayed some trust. Transgressed some rule?
Six months later, a book appeared. A very good novel, I might add, one I’d truly admire if it did not contain, albeit in an expertly rendered version, my life. I should have seen this coming. All writers, including myself, commit these betrayals, and C was a writer known for such appropriations. A mutual friend once told me that C asked to see her horse. C had never been near a horse. And so C went to the friend’s and the horse was produced. “May I pet it?” C asked. C spent half an hour with the horse. Then a year later a novel about a woman and her horse appeared. In hindsight, of course, I should have known that all those letters were just grist for the mill. But in the end, I had to tell myself: It’s just a story.
I responded in kind. I wrote my own novel about an artist who tells a secret to a novelist in the hopes that the novelist will tell her story. I called that novel Revenge. Though we’ve never discussed it, I’m sure C is aware that it’s about her pilfering from my life. Writing well, after all, is our best revenge. I would never resort to violence and I don’t normally fight back. But that doesn’t mean I won’t write about it. The pen, as we all know, is mightier.
Philip Roth once said that if you don’t offend your family, your friends, and your country, you aren’t a real writer. I recall a beloved friend with whom, years ago, I spent the holidays from time to time. One afternoon, she asked me to follow her into her basement, where she thrust her husband’s laundry in my face. “What does this smell like?” she asked.
I was stunned by the gesture. “Perfume,” I told her.
She nodded. “I am allergic to perfume.”
She didn’t say more. She didn’t add, “Don’t you dare write about this.” She didn’t tell me I couldn’t have it, or, as fellow writers will say, “it’s mine; not yours,” as if we’re talking about toys in a sandbox. She just told me that she was allergic to perfume. And, after her marriage broke up, when I found the right story and place to plug it in, I did.
Later I signed a copy of the book to her with that story in it. I’d actually forgotten that I’d drawn from her life. But when she read the story, she called me. “I’m never telling you anything again.” She wasn’t exactly angry, but she also never shared much more with me again, beyond her recipe for green-bean casserole and the name of her colorist.
Looking back, I wish I’d read some of my friends, my cousin, my parents, their Miranda rights. I’m a writer. I have to write and, as a teacher of mine once said, writers don’t read; they ravage. Or as short story writer Charles D’Ambrosio has said of himself, he’s a nice guy. He gives to charities; he relinquishes his subway seat to the disabled. But he’d steal a crumb from the lips of his starving grandmother for the sake of a story.
I share in his struggle. Many of us who draw from life do. But shouldn’t we also draw the line? For example, the writer who stole an incident involving a dildo from his former girlfriend’s life, then published it in The New Yorker. Shouldn’t some things be sacred?
What is this compulsion that makes every twisted mishap, every weird, funny, sad event or odd bit of information grist for our mill. We take. We steal. We pillage and ravage our lives and the lives of all those around us. What are we making anyway? Who knows? And who cares? It’s just what we do.
The novelist John Berger once said that writers draw their material from three sources: experience, witness, and imagination. What happens to us, what we observe or learn, and what we make up. For most of us I believe our raw material comes from all three of these sources, and, on its way to becoming a story, gets heated in the cauldron of our creative minds. Most writers understand when something is free game and when it isn’t. “I’m going to tell you this, but you can’t use it,” my friend Dani Shapiro likes to say. In journalism speak, it’s off the record.
But the unspoken agreement between writers is often misunderstood by civilians. They do not grasp the particular alchemy we perform. Yes, we take from what is around us—the detritus and dross of everyday life—and then we concoct it into something quite different. Which is why I was never really angry with C. What she did was no different than a dog burying its bone. Instinct, pure and simple.
I think that what is perhaps hardest for people to understand is this: What one person considers the sacred truth of their life is, to a writer, more or less a slag heap. A junkyard through which we pick and choose. I might find myself fascinated by some small betrayal. For another writer, it might be a crime in his family. Whatever makes a detail resonate for one writer while it falls flat for another is a mystery. As my mother once said, quoting someone else, everyone has his own poison.
What is the impetus for a story? What makes it take hold inside of us so that we can’t let it go? Let’s go back to my neighbor and the pruning of the tree. I hadn’t planned to write about what happened between us. Not exactly. I had found the incident curious, but it didn’t set me on fire. But then a convergence of things occurred. My father died; my dog died. And then the tree pruner came over and told me that he’d prune our tree, but he’d only take out the obvious dead.
The obvious dead.
The phrase rippled through me. The dead. All that had died. Father, dog, friendship, tree branches. And so the narrative wheels began to churn and once they started, who was I to stop them? Which led me to my moral dilemma.
Of course by the time the story was written, the character was closer to Mr. Potato Head than to the person next door. But most readers who have gone into the equivalent of Superman’s phone booth and emerged as protagonists don’t see it this way. My friend with the dildo episode didn’t. They see themselves. I doubt that their claims would hold up in a court of law (though there was that infamous Terry McMillen slander trial in which her former lover won), but it might give The New York Times Magazine’s Ethicist pause.
When I am at my desk, tempted by something I’ve seen or been told, I say to myself, “I can’t use this, can I?”
And then the voice of the writer takes over inside of me. “How can I not?”
For Christmas a couple years ago, a family member gave me a T-shirt that reads “Be careful or I’ll put you in my novel.” I wear this when I am walking my dog, hoping my neighbor might see it. I hope he might catch the hint before the story appears in print. Until then, all you perps on your way to becoming protagonists, all of you who offer up your raw material, don’t be surprised.
You have the right to remain silent.
Anything you say can, and will, be used against you.
Consider yourselves warned.
Mary Morris is the author, most recently, of a memoir, All the Way to the Tigers. The recipient of the 2016 Anisfield-Wolf Award for fiction, Morris lives in Brooklyn, New York.