“A Writer’s Always Selling Someone Out”

Friday, I spoke to two classes at St. Stephen’s School.  It was my usual talk.  You know, where I’m from, how my sister and I grew up being great disappointments to our parents since we were bookworms instead of cheerleaders, how I started writing (I’ve done everything backwards.  Most writers start out writing.  I had to go to law school to figure out I didn’t want to practice law).

After I finished my spiel, I said I’d answer any questions.  The students were engaged, sweet-faced, curious.  But one young woman’s question stopped me cold.

“What about the resentment,” she asked, “when you’re telling other people’s stories?  What do you do about that?”

That struck me as being a remarkably sophisticated question for a high school student to ask.  It’s something I’ve wondered about, wrestled with, for years.

If you’re a writer, you’re endlessly fascinated by stories, true and fictitious.  You go through life watching, listening and — in many ways — taking.  As Joan Didion once wrote, Writers are always selling someone out.  But are we?

At our holiday party a few years ago, I was talking to a local writer.  Another woman approached us and told the writer she was angry at her.  The writer, as it turned out, had written about the woman’s 20-something son in an article in The New York Times.  It was the story of her relationship with the younger man, with its carefully balanced intermingling of both platonic friendship and the hint of something more.  The fact is, nothing untoward happened, but flirtation was in the air.

The woman stomped off.  She and the writer aren’t friends any longer.  One feels her son was taken advantage of, the other that her innocent friendship with a young man was besmirched by an overprotective mother.

Both women are friends of mine and I feel as if I understand their points of view fairly well.  The point that didn’t quite get articulated was that the young man’s mother felt her son’s privacy had been invaded.  Someone else had “taken” his story and told it in her own way.  It hadn’t been hers to tell; it had been theirs.  He had never consented to its being told.

To the writer, though, she had only done what writers do.  She had used her life’s experiences, telling them as honestly as possible.  When others wandered in front of her psychic camera, their pictures got taken.  She didn’t own others, but she did own the pictures she took.  If people didn’t want their images captured, they shouldn’t linger too long in front of that hungry lens she always carried with her.

It can be irresistible — this urge to mold a narrative, to move it along, to shape it, to give it life.  If you’re good at it, it gives you power, brings you praise.  You tell a story well or you write it well, and people laugh and shake their heads at how funny or insightful you are.

But is it worth it?  You can lose friends.  Is it right — to take the raw materials of someone else’s life and use it for your own purposes?

Recently, another friend told me about writing a sharply critical review of a friend’s book.  She sent me the review — and it was clever, funny and cutting.  But their friendship ended with that review.  Looking back, the reviewer told me, she wished she hadn’t written the review.  It wasn’t worth the friendship.

Maybe it’s because writers feel so powerless — and the only thing they can do, really, is to shape their stories and tell them.  What choice is there?

I don’t quite buy that, though.  We do have choices.  We know what we’re risking when we tell others’ stories.  Is it worth the friendship to tell the story?

All you can do is sift through your experiences, your life, your relationships, and ask yourself that again and again.  How great a story is it?  How precious a friendship?  And which do you value more?

Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker

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