Friday 13 March 2009

Is it ethical for Writers to fictionalise Family or Friends

Julie Myerson’s book, The Lost Child, not in the bookshops yet, has created a lot of pre-publication excitement, not because of its literary merit, nobody seems to talk about that, but because Myerson admitted that it dealt with the drug problem of her oldest son.

The son says he didn’t want the book to be published.

The critics not only blame Myerson for disrespecting his wishes for privacy but also for her actions, which she details in the book, throwing her 17-year old out of the family home.

I personally belong to the group of writers who judge it unethical to use family or friends as characters in their fiction. A fictional story has its own flow and rhythm and can never do justice to the life of a living human being. Autobiography and biography may try to achieve a complete picture of a person but I don’t believe for one moment that they can ever succeed and capture the whole story.

On the other hand I completely understand that a writer deals with emotional upheavals by writing. I do the same but I distinguish between writing as therapy and writing for publication.
When I write because I can’t cope emotionally or spiritually with what is happening in my life I first of all change the way I do it. I use paper and pen rather than the computer. I have many notebooks full of letters to human beings, to God, to my deeper self, as well as descriptions of my states. Nobody is ever allowed to read these notebooks, not even my nearest and dearest. I am well aware that they contain material for a few novels but I wouldn’t dream of using it, or shall I say not directly, in its raw form.

For example I coped with caring for my terminally ill mother-in-law, with whom I had a very difficult relationship, by writing. My writing was fuelled by anger, by self-pity, by exhaustion, and many other more fleeting emotions. Years later I have used her death – she died at home – in a novel. A character in my novel dies of the same illness she died of and I used my memory - I didn’t need the notebook - to describe the moment of his death. The character and his son go through completely different struggles from the ones my mother-in-law and I faced, and the emotional side of my real life-experience was not touched upon in the novel at all.

At other times I might use an emotional experience for a novel, but not the actual story. A broken heart, being jealous of a sibling, getting married, becoming a mother etc. are universal experiences that many of us go through, and yes, sometimes our fictional characters will mirror our own way of dealing with these emotional issues. At other times however I enjoy creating a character that does what I can’t do. In Julie Myerson’s case I might have written about a mother who does not kick out her son, who finds another way of dealing with the situation. I appreciate that this is not easy to do while you are going through the trauma.

I believe that if you want to use real-life traumas as themes for a novel you have to wait until you have fully digested the whole experience. The writer can’t afford to be emotionally involved with her characters. She needs a coldness in her heart while writing. All the characters must be equally precious to her. She can’t take sides with the character that sees the world like she does. Many people say that at least seven years have to pass; some say ten, before you should use events from your own life in fiction. Experiences have to lie fallow and fade in importance before they can be turned into successful fiction.

And what about the motive of warning others, of trying to raise awareness of an issue, you may ask. Campaigns have no place in fiction. They belong to non-fiction.

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