Monday, July 12, 2021

Stealing People's Stories

For those of you paying attention to the discourse out there, this both is and is not about the revelation that the short story "Cat Person" lifted some details from a real person's life. 
I had a conversation with a family friend who is an artist, who said when she paints people, she usually envisions someone she knows to start with, and kind of adds enough bits on top that it isn't really them, but she can always see who she used to start with underneath, and was writing like that.  
For me it both is and is not.  I always remember the bit in L. M. Montgomery's Emily series, where Emily gets published and various neighbors decide they are the such and such character and feel affronted about this bit. Because I think no matter what you do as an author, people who know you are going to decide you stole it from them.  
I have written stories based on real people, but also not.  Because I'm a pantser, if I know exactly what happened, I am bored, and no longer care.  But I did once write a story that combined a bunch of things my brain had been noodling on, and then when it was finished, realize one element of it bore enough similarity to something that had happened to a roommate of mine that there was no way she wasn't going to think it was inspired by that, even though I hadn't thought about them once when I was drafting.  That wasn't the only problem with that story, my main character changes personalities halfway through and that meant at least half of it needed to be re-written, probably more, and so I trunked it.  It wasn't just because it resembled a thing that had happened to someone, because let's face it there are a finite number of things that happen to people, especially when writing contemporary.  But once the similarity was clear to me, I couldn't see how I could fix the story and disentangle it enough from what had happened to my roommate to not seem like a trauma vampire and so trunked that story is.  
But yes, writers joke about plot bunnies, but for me, unless I'm doing a retelling, I'm taking a thing and throwing it into a blender and using it to power the story engine, not using it as the entire story template.  These differences may seem subtle but I do think it's important.  I want people to feel seen when they read a story I wrote because I got to some emotional truth of a thing.  Now, of course, I did use a viral date gone wrong story for Undercover Bridesmaid, but I felt to me like that was different because I was using a thing and the story wasn't really about that, that was just a way to move the beginning bit.  Could I have done it another way?  Yes.  
And certainly I am often inspired by stories that I read, both the viral date gone bad, and other news stories.  But mostly the thing I wonder is - what happens next?  Like sure, you go on a date and discover the guy has booked other dates, but what do you do next? 
And yes, I have overheard things in coffee shops, and thought hmm, and talked to people about funny things that happened to them and thought hmm, but writing a story about Bob in accounting is not appealing to me.  And while I can never guarantee I won't stumble onto a combination of things that happened to someone I know, I can of course try not to do it intentionally. And it feels like if anyone can say I think your whole story is based on me and Bob, then rather than there's a bit in chapter two that happened to me once, well, it feels like that's not fiction anymore.