Recently, I went to a writing group, where a fellow writer told me how she got her inspiration. She was writing the story of a friend of a friend losing her virginity at 28. “When my friend told me the story, I just found it so funny, I had to write it into a novel,” she told me. And I cringed. The idea of such a personal story being relayed to the world is a lot of people’s worst nightmare. And the fact that the person poaching the plot was a complete stranger (thereby obviously not having permission to tell it) didn’t make me feel better about it.
But it did get me thinking… how bad is it to pinch parts of someone else’s life story? Is it ever okay?
There has been a lot of discussion lately about the “Bad Art Friend”- a complicated tale of a personal story being plagiarised (and consequent law suits). A lot of people cannot decide who exactly the “Bad Art Friend” was in that situation (since this certainly seems to be a case of writers behaving badly). Nonetheless- whichever side I am on- there’s something deeply uncomfortable about taking someone else’s story in order to mock them. I cannot help but be reminded of Music and Lyrics, where Drew Barrimore’s character has been traumatised by such an event. Naturally, as the audience it is impossible not to empathise- for who would want to be the laughing stock of the world?
Which makes this seem like a cut and dry case- except it’s clearly not. Because isn’t this just something writers and artists do? Drawing from real life is quite possibly the oldest tradition in writing. We all have poets and singers we admire who openly write about real life people. And while artists like Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran may have been criticised in recent years for this practice… it’s not like it’s a new phenomenon. People scour Shakespeare’s sonnets for evidence of the real people they were about. Thomas Hardy knowingly took details from real life cases he read about in newspapers to add realism to his stories. And what of historical fiction, cannibalising the lives of real figures in history and reproducing them for our entertainment. Indeed, even I am engaging in this practice by sharing my anecdote at the start of this piece!
Sadly, I don’t think there is an easy answer here. If you argue that you should obscure the references, keeping identities secret like Carly Simons did with “You’re So Vain”, you underestimate the innumerable fan sites dedicated to decoding songwriter’s every word. And if you suggest only writing nice things your
victims subjects, then you ignore the likes of Christopher Robin, the star of Winnie the Pooh, who famously complained about being foisted into the spotlight against his will. And retribution for those whose stories are stolen seems out of the question- lawsuits don’t help you win allies and plotting murder like in the (hopefully entirely fictional) Plot seems a bit extreme 😉
It seems to me that there is no way around absorbing parts of our lives into our stories and art. There is no obvious dividing line where truth becomes fiction after all. But perhaps we can still endeavour to treat people with basic dignity and respect. Perhaps there are some stories that we ought to leave well enough alone. Perhaps the only conclusive advice I can offer is this: don’t be a dick. Which is sound advice in general 😉
For more on this discussion (and somewhat different takes) check out these videos:
All of this leaves me in quite the conundrum- so I’d like to hear what you think! Is it ever okay to fictionalise someone else’s story? Can you entirely avoid drawing from real life? Let me know in the comments!