Is it worth it? If you have to ask, then ask. If you can’t ask, then maybe you shouldn’t.
I know it’s been a minute since I’ve written about writing, kids, but that’s because I’m writing. But today feels like a great day to write about writing because sometimes the stars align, and you wake up with an “ah hah.” Well, for me it was “ah-hah,” and “Oh crap, I’ve neglected the writing blog. I’m sure all 5 subscribers are just pulling out their hair.” *wink-cough*
Recently, I’ve been thinking about what’s okay to write about and why. Oddly, I’ve also had the opportunity to enjoy a couple of films that, unbeknownst to me, explore the question/theme of “fair game” w/r/t writers and writing. So… what is “fair game” as a writer?
“Where’s the Beef?”
Other than an ancient Wendy’s hamburger commercial, the question of the “beef” meaning “problem” arises in these two films I watched recently.
The first film, Let Them All Talk starring Meryl Streep, was delightfully subversive, great tension, and I found myself cringing sometimes at Streep’s character, Alice Hughes, an award-winning novelist who had won the Pulitzer for a book that had clearly divided her from her two best friends, both of whom she’d invited to come with her on an ocean voyage to the UK to accept another prestigious award.
Alice’s college friends, Susan, played by Dianne Wiest, and Roberta, played by Candace Bergen, board the ocean liner, along with Alice’s nephew and new literary agent, and what ensues is reveal after delicious reveal with plenty of red herrings along the way that slowly bring us up to speed about the “beef” between Alice and her friends, specifically Roberta.
The beef? Alice didn’t ask. And because of that, Roberta’s life was in ruins. Or… Alice didn’t ask, and Roberta’s life would have been in ruins anyway, based on Roberta’s character (or lack thereof). In either case, Alice should have asked permission to use elements of Roberta’s life, shared in confidence, before writing an acclaimed book using copious amounts of it, “fictionalized” or not.
Trust me, the film’s conclusion is extremely satisfying, and my empathy and respect ultimately rests with Alice–and not because she’s a writer. ‘Nuff said.
Last night, we enjoyed another film starring Streep, along with Tom Hanks, called The Post. This film is based on a true story and it explores the duty of the press to report the news “for the governed,” not for those who govern.
Faced with getting on the wrong side of President Richard Nixon, Streep’s character, Katherine Graham, the first woman to run a major newspaper, had to make a decision based on what was right, not what was expedient. Her decision to publish what has been come to be called The Pentagon Papers had worldwide, nationwide impacts that still reverberate throughout our country today. The beef on this one? Based on their position as a news organization, they not only didn’t ask, they shouldn’t have to ask.
The arc of Streep’s character peaks when she realizes what was at stake if she did her job. Risking her position as the high-society dilettante who dabbled in the day-to-day operations of The Post, left to her by her late-husband and father, she had to choose between social-position and friendship-loyalty and her loyalty to the First Amendment. She made the right call.
For me, the best part of the film, what made it a tapestry of conflict and relevance, was the subtle, perfectly tuned undercurrent throughout the film showing just how little women’s voices mattered back then. It didn’t hit us over the head. It was the reality, and many of us remember it, while many of today’s younger women can’t even comprehend it.
So the writer, played by Streep, and the reporters from The Post had two very different audiences. They also have a myriad of different responsibilities as writers. But in both cases, their audience became important players throughout each film’s story.
Oh, Your Humanity
Whenever I’ve taught writing workshops or given guest lectures to university students, I’m invariably asked certain questions, like “Where do you get your inspiration for stories, characters, etc.” and the answer is usually pretty simple: when you’re a writer, almost everything is fair game.
Oh, did you notice the “almost” in there? Good.
If there’s ever a time you find yourself wondering “is this fair game?” Chances are, it isn’t. I’ve only had a precious few times where I’ve had to ask, and I’ve only had one person say “no.” That was because it was a blog, a poem, and I was talking about an experience in Jr. High. I asked a woman if I could use part of an email she’d sent me to illustrate a point. She wrote back saying she’d rather I didn’t. I respected her wishes.
Once I called the only person who could give me permission to write about something extremely traumatic that did not happen to me, but affected me immensely. So, I wrote about my experience and planned, all along, on talking to this person because I’d written about it vaguely once before, and whether or not they’ve seen it, I cringe that it exists because had I thought about its impact on them, I’d have not written it the way I did.
I had this person and her family in mind the entire time I wrote the piece. They were my audience, because when you write about someone, especially if it’s complicated, conflicted, or has the potential to cause pain, writing from that mindset allows you to write with the maximum amount of compassion and empathy, which is why she gave me her blessing to include the piece in an upcoming book.
Now, I’ve been on the wrong side of the beef. One author told people the “villain” in her YA book was based on me. She even not-so-subtly used a variation of my name, just in case it wasn’t clear that’s who it was based on (see: “hitting over the head.”)
More recently, someone wrote about a very personal, difficult experience of mine and how it had shaped their lives. Now, as convoluted as it sounds, we don’t live in a vacuum, do we? So while it was my experience, it did impact the lives of other people, and continues to. Was my experience “fair game?” It depends.
What was the intent of the writer and how did they depict the event? Was it treated fairly? Was I depicted in the most truthful light? Was the event depicted with the appropriate gravitas? Was it written from a place of compassion, empathy, or self-indulgence?
Well, you’ll have to ask the writer. I’ll keep my opinion to myself for now. In the meantime, was it worth it for them? Again, you’ll have to ask.
Fair Game Faring
Finally, let’s take a large-scale event and explore the “fair game” issue and how writers fare based on how they treat the event.
I’ve written, and am writing about the events surrounding September 11th, 2001, but I wasn’t there, in NYC. So while it’s “fair game” to write about a national incident/tragedy that impacted all our lives going forward, professing to know what it was like to survive it via lying about surviving it is nothing short of gangrenous human behavior.
On that day, former-president Donald Trump called into a television station live to talk about the events occurring in front of him. His remarks about his building being the tallest in NYC as the Twin Towers fell is a chilling glimpse into his mindset.
But hey, this is America. Your right to be as big of an asshole as you want is protected. As a writer in America, however, being an asshole will only get you so far.
There are a lot of white writers who have written historical fictions that address the inner lives of people of color and/or black people in America.
This has become a hot-button issue, and a new industry has erupted in the form of “sensitivity readers.” From where I sit, this is an industry that shouldn’t exist if you’re a novelist who writes from a place of humanity rather than from the need for social acceptance or out of fear of being burned in effigy. While it’s important to correct cultural or historical inaccuracies, the issues of stereotyping, biases and “problematic language” speak more to the writer’s ability as a writer–unless the language is indicative of a character’s…character. It’s a slippery slope to cultural censorship, folks.
I’ve only asked someone to read something for me on the basis of his gay-male status. Having never been a man, let alone a gay man, I wanted to make sure my scene and character rang true to him. It did. He didn’t tell me I was insensitive to the gay male character because the world is not a gay-sensitive place, no matter what your local LGBTQ chapter wants. I wrote my character true to the universal human emotions of needing to belong, fear of censure, feelings of inadequacy, feelings of self-love and acceptance and wow, how dare I?
Here’s the truth of it, folks. A black writer might be able to capture the inner life of a black person based on their lives and their experience as a black person in America. But if that’s the bar and the rules, then male writers shouldn’t write about the inner lives of women. Women writers shouldn’t write about the inner lives of men, and what a loss that would be, especially for me, since I write about the inner lives of men all the time and I’ve been told I’m quite good at it.
However, I think I would take umbrage if a man wrote a novel about women’s suffrage and created characters who underscored the very worst female stereotypes and behaviors–especially if he attempted to “redeem” them through his male-centric perspective.
Time and again, this has happened to PoC, specifically black characters and writers.
Currently I’m writing a novel that takes place, at times, in Chicago. It would be insane to not have the long and sordid racial tensions of that city in my mindset as I write the interactions between characters. But the book is not about racial tensions in Chicago. That is not my story to write, is it?
In closing, if what you’re writing about is “fair game” because it’s impacted your life, all our lives, then it’s important to remember not to write from a place of fear, nor is it necessary to write from a place of sociocultural popularity and “what sells.” That’s gotten more than a few writers in hot water.
If you want to make sure you’re doing it right, staying true to your place as a novelist and writer means you need to keep some things always in the forefront of your mind as you write: who is your audience–the friendly and unfriendly variety–and whose story are you really telling? Even more important, why are you telling it?
Je te vois, and as always, peace–