Writing ethics: Defining your voice by what you don’t write about as much as what you do

Okay, so last week I mentioned how much I admired Nina Badzin’s article for TC Jew Folk, “Things I Don’t Write about on the Internet.”  

I pretty much agreed with her on all points, although I will occasionally get political. (This is pretty much conditioning on my part: no meal shared with my family during the 1980s did not involve bashing of the Republican Party, so far as I can remember. But my memory might be faulty. Not that I’m a Democrat. Currently, my party membership is officially “decline to state.” You can do that in California.) 

Anyway, there was one thing not on Nina’s list I kept thinking about while reading it, and it has haunted me ever since:

I DON’T TELL OTHER PEOPLE’S STORIES.

What are “other people’s stories?”

Some topics on Nina’s list are in this category: if the story will embarrass my spouse or kids, I’m not going to tell it, because those events — and the feelings associated with them — really belong to them. This is particularly true now that my eldest is practically a teenager (and just a fraction of an inch shorter than me).

If their life struggles really affect me, and I think there’s a lesson to be learned for my readers, I might, might write an essay and publish it under a pseudonym, or I’ll fictionalize the whole thing. Heavily. I actually think that my science fiction and fantasy is more likely to be based on the deep psychological underpinnings of the Klempner household than the average essay or realistic fiction I publish.

But there’s more…

Pretty much all writers schmooze with other writers. And sometimes we swap ideas with them, or bounce ideas off each other. Most of us (with unfortunate exceptions) would not steal our colleague’s idea.

But sometimes when a friend who is not a fellow writer tells us a story, our eyes glaze over. Not from boredom — from fascination. “This would make a great story!” our inner voice screams.

However. When we have a friend who confides something in us, it does not matter how compelling it is. It doesn’t matter if she’s kept us on the edge of our seat, and we must know what happens next. It is her story. It is her choice whether to share it or to keep it private. “Borrowing” the sordid details of her divorce, the abuse she suffered as a child, the frustration she has at work, is nothing less than theft. Being a good friend, a good person, is more important than writing a story that might possibly get you attention and money. 

Even when a friend permits you to share her story, she might not like your take, because her story has now become your story, from your perspective. You might have assigned a different meaning to a part of her life story, highlighted certain aspects of the story that she finds unflattering, or overlooked her favorite details.

Unfortunately, I learned this from personal experience. Once, I interviewed a friend of my sister’s for research purposes, with no intention of writing the informant’s story as experienced. And I said this from the beginning, that I would write a fictional story in the setting with some details borrowed, but not the plot.

When they read the final story, they felt bereft, “Where’s my story in this?” It is important to prepare your friend for this experience. The events of our lives are precious to us, our memories are integral parts of our identities, and we should respect that.

Now, a reader of Orthodox books or magazines might say: but hundreds of people have told their stories to Rabbi Paysach Krohn, Nachman Seltzer, and the like!

It is those exceptions that demonstrate the right approach: Those writers have won over people to volunteer stories because they’ve shown such respect for the people whose stories they’ve told. They essentially preserve the voice and point of view of their informants, telling the informants’ stories, not their own. (And, I believe, they check with the volunteers later to see if they approve the first draft.)

When it’s not fiction, real people can get hurt…and sometimes real people are hurt by fiction, too 

It is more legit to use the inner struggles your friends have faced inspiration for fiction. When if you do this, don’t merely change a few names and locations, leaving everything else the same, and pass it off as fiction. Because that’s not fiction, it’s a true short story — a legitimate genre, but if everyone knows that the details are true, they’ll look around to identify the real life actors in the drama. And it’s easier to do than you think, partly due to social media.

But the bigger concern is this: you’ve now treated your friend not as a person, but as the means to an end: your “artistic endeavor.” Everyone has heard stories of writers whose friends, family, even neighbors won’t talk to — because they fear anything they say or do in front of that person will be misinterpreted and inscribed forever in the writer’s next book. You don’t want to be that person. They are lonely. They are angry. And if you are a believer — you don’t want to answer the questions they’ll have to when they reach the World of Truth.

But what about me? What about my art?

Art isn’t really about “you” in the personal sense. It’s about all of us, in the universal, cosmic sense. It’s about truth, and building community. There can be unseemly, embarrassing, violent details in a story that overall builds people, inspires them, creates wholeness. But any story that originated with a betrayal of trust can’t build people or make them whole, not in a genuine way. Or, that’s my opinion. 

The best thing I think you can do for those people with the really dynamite stories is to encourage them to write them. Teach them how to write, if necessary. Allow them to share a slice of their life with the world on their own terms.

Do you have an opinion on this subject? Tell us in the comments!

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2 thoughts on “Writing ethics: Defining your voice by what you don’t write about as much as what you do

  1. I agree with you for the most part. Someone once tried to coerce me to write an article about another family’s experience. They wanted me to interview said family. When I asked permission, the family said no. The original person wanted me to write it anyway but without names. I refused. That being said, I think if people are willing to be interviewed and quoted with their true name then it’s ok. Articles are not for the writer. They are for the reader and if the reader can benefit, then people out there are often willing to be quoted (of course they appreciate getting a preview draft to approve) in order to help others. So I don’t agree that writers are necessarily using material (with permission and with preview drafts) from others’ stories to “get a good story” or for money. There’s more to their motivation.

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    • I think that you are right on a number of points. It is totally different when the people are willing to speak as “sources” either on the record or anonymously. And I also agree that sometimes writers who write stories about people who sometimes don’t want their stories shared are motivated not by greed, but by the desire to spread awareness of an issue or the like. However, even in such cases (like the one you describe at the beginning of your comment), I think it’s possible to overstep the privileges of friendship.

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