Usually I write novels, not short ones either. I’ve been committing novels half my life. (I write “committing” because sometimes my novels feel like crimes: of self-indulgence, because what they earn doesn’t support my family; of hubris, because they create complex worlds that live on their own and surely piss off the gods, if there are gods).
What I’ve learned in writing is that a novel’s story-world, and the characters that live in it, have no respect for the world I live in. Of course I start off wanting, even needing to put in people and places I know, but the places and people in novel X have their own logistics, needs, and requirements; they have discrete hopes and angers and systems of measurement; and inevitably these take over. I have written about Africa, and France, and my native Cape Cod (Mass.,) and while I know well the places I describe, the characters live their way and rejigger their environments to match.
If you try to find your way to the villages in the novels I’ve written about the Cape, for example, you will get lost. Guaranteed. The characters insisted on a street in Hyannis, a bar in Chatham, a patch of woods in Wellfleet, a smell from a house in Cotuit. And while they might have started off as a fisherman I worked for, a woman I lived with, they soon chose their own paths, and became someone significantly different.
Of late, however, I’ve been writing short-short fiction, a lot of it based on things that happened in my real life. The stories are so short that the characters come roaring onto the page as themselves, the original Maddy, Pedro, Kurt, in all their ballgowns or sweatclothes, their valiance or lazy cowardice.
This raises issues. Some of the stories involve people who don’t behave well. Some of them are family members. They are racked by obsession or drink, they make fools of themselves over women (or men). They don’t have time to alter the narrative, or dress themselves as other than who they are in real life. And if the people involved read the story, they will recognize themselves, and be hurt.
Is it worth hurting someone in the interests of literature? On some level, I believe it is, or should be. When I think of what a writer is supposed to do, I always remember Tony Montana’s line from Scarface: “Me, I always tell the truth–even when I lie.” In fiction as in non-fiction, a good writer will always paint a perspective of how the world truly works and how people function. That perspective illuminates, explains, and most importantly of all, makes us feel the impact of those mechanics. The writer will paint this way no matter what the cost.
If that means putting someone real in the cast of characters, and person “A” is hurt by his inclusion, “A” should know that his pride or trust have been violated in the interests of a higher truth, a finer Art than people normally practice in daily life.
And, yet–I don’t buy it.
I suppose, if one of my short but hurtful pieces could provably, immediately save the lives of people dying of thirst in Somalia, one could make a case that the ends justified the means. But justifying deliberate harm for whatever reason is always a risky argument because such arguments will inevitably be turned around to justify goals that are not cut and dried.
And it’s more likely that the sky will turn green or that Fox News will report objectively than that my writing should save the life of anyone. Bring insight, maybe. Cause pleasure, I hope. But save lives–nope.
In those circumstances, I can only say that if I have to make the decision, I’ll opt not to hurt. Or at least, I’ll fudge the names and identities of characters to the point where they can’t be recognized. Is that a cheap compromise? Maybe. But it’s what I do.
I don’t think Tony Montana uttered words to illustrate this position, so I’ll refer instead to the artist Alberto Giacometti, who once said, “In a fire, between a Rembrandt and a cat, I would choose the cat.” Art, and writing, should value life above all else. And they should demonize hurt, not cause it.
6 thoughts on “Guest Blog Post, George Foy: Even When I Lie”
There is definitely a risk involved when writing nonfiction–or in the case made here, fiction based off real events in which the people the characters are based off are recognizable. I think it takes a lot of courage to write about one’s own life and the lives of others, though I can see where it could be alienating. I read one of David Sedaris’ books this year and one think he talks about is how his family repeats that they want a specific story or incident out of his writing, yet he tends to include it anyway. I imagine some members of his family have stopped telling him things.
It is a difficult balance.
I enjoyed reading your thoughts on how your characters evolve into their own personalities within a novel, yet within the short stories there is not that same time that allows a distance to separate the real from the created. I think that though family and friends don’t necessarily sign up for being apart of a story, they are in fact friends and family with you and know what could happen as you are a writer. If they don’t like what they read then maybe they should take that as an eye opener. But that is just my opinion on it.
Thank you for your comments. A thoughful dialogue with family members can help.
The hardest part about writing nonfiction is painting those you love in a bad light. I agree with the author’s thoughts to not hurt them, because the chances of your work saving someone in the world is miniscule. Besides, I think my relationships with my friends and family are more important than anything I am writing about them. Although, the advice to have a conversation with them first is good, too.
Thank you for this comment!
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