Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, July 30, 2012

What Do Writers Owe the People in Their Lives?

Ta-Nehisi Coates recently featured an interview with William Faulkner that naturally had an incredible array of quotable material, but which focused in part on the responsibility an author has to their art.

The meat:
The writer's only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is worth any number of old ladies.
Faulkner comes from the kill, maim, dismember school of artistry, where the work is paramount and the lives that are affected are of secondary concern.

Easy to say. Not so much to do.

Many writers I know, especially memoirists or those who pull material from their real lives, grapple with the morality of affecting personal relationships in order to put forth their writing. When I heard him speak a few weeks back, Jonathan Franzen recounted how he hesitated using a thinly veiled version of his brother in The Corrections.

How should a writer navigate this tricky path? Does the work of art ultimately reign supreme over the feelings of the people who may be hurt in the process of creating a book? What should an author be prepared to sacrifice? What do writers owe the other people in their lives?

Photograph of William Faulkner by Carl Van Vechten. Please see the Wikimedia Commons page for information on the Vechten estate's requests for reproducing his photographs.


CS Perryess said...

Intriguing. I'm afraid my "modern sensibilities" cause me to veer away from Faulkner's thoughts on this matter. An artist' art is to be wallowed in, & if the artist has alienated the whole world, who's left to wallow?

Elgon Williams said...

I have also labored with this issue while writing a semi-autobiographical piece. Although the characterization are not insulting, they are far from flattering. Since my perspective in involved, I can't claim that I opt for realism in such depictions. So, I have tried to be fair. My hope is that most will understand, but I expect I'll enrage a few of the more insecure people I know.


Isaiah Campbell said...

This may make me a bit of a jerk, but the people in my life have been informed that I am a writer and, as such, anything they say can and will be used as fodder for my literary ventures. Unless they specifically ask me not to. Does it sometimes make for awkward situations? Yes it does. However, better an awkward situation now than an explosion in my face when they read themselves on paper. (Admittedly, all I've really done is released myself from liability. But, by putting a warning label on myself, I usual find that my friends are more careful what they say around me. Which I also find quite beneficial. (:)

Carolyn said...

Here's the thing - I personally believe that the world is a beautiful place, one worth living in and saving. I believe people are, by and large, beautiful creatures, more good than bad.

As writers, we are obligated to write the truth as we understand it. I steal from those around me constantly. I am not a creator, I am a thief. But I've found people have a hard time seeing themselves even when looking in a mirror, let alone under a few layers of fiction. And even if they did - I can be content knowing that I write out of a place of love. If they find it hurtful, that is outside my control. That which is under my control, my motivation and my method, I am at peace with.

That said, I have based a couple of villains on real people I have known. If they were to recognize themselves, which I doubt they would, I could care less. Although I think the vast majority of us are primarily good, there are those that cross the line into something very, very dark, and there's nothing wrong with writing that truth.

As far as Faulkner and his ilk are concerned - ultimately, it's the same principle - write the truth as you understand it. I'm sure a lot of writers genuinely believe the world is a dark and cruel place, and must be navigated as such. But so often it feels like affectation to me, reaction inspired by the fear that happiness reveals a lack intellectual heft. Hemingway's line comes to mind - "Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know." I say, "BS disaffected malaise is boringly common amongst pseudo-intellectual cowards." Happiness is a choice, and it isn't an easy one. It takes courage to be happy. It takes strength to look the world in the eye and choose love, anyway. "So screw you, Hemingway, you cowardly misogynistic bastard," I say with a smile on my face. "You too, Faulkner."

Rick Daley said...

I owe my friend Matt $20, but that doesn't have anything to do with writing. Actually, now that I think about it, I can probably give him a couple of my books and call it even.

Some days it's good to be a writer.

Other than that, I write fiction, and while some people may act as a primary inspiration, I try to craft unique personalities for my characters.

I owe my family patience and encouragement in their endeavors, because that's what they gave me.

Jene' Jackson said...

Thankfulness is my first response to the people in my life. Being the friend of "a writer" is strewn with hazards, from getting quoted or, let's call it homaged, to being ignored for weeks.
My book, The Oat Project, is a memoir about the summer in which I sowed 25 wild oats at age 37...with the help of my friends.
Though I haven't pulled punches on what actually happened with things like smoking weed, going clubbing, or at the strip club, I've made sure the story stays focused on me and my experience. That decision helps with family, too--how we see our preacher's kids' upbringing differently, for example.
Also, every friend in the book has had the option of choosing a different name.
We writers have one most basic calling, to truth-telling, whether fiction or nonfiction. That's what I see as Art.
Have I lost friends over the book? Yes. Has it strained other relationships? Yep. But it's also made others deeper and more authentic. Our readers come to know us through our words, and if it calls them to know themselves better or let themselves be known more, then riding the edge of offense is worth it.

Serenity Bohon said...

This is an awesome question. I agree with you - Faulkner's way is completely accurate in theory but so hard to do. I am sitting on the makings of a memoir that I will probably sit on for most or all of my life because I cannot bear to expose some of the ridiculous moments in the lives of people I love, even those I loved at one time and maybe only respect from a distance at this point. I guess that means there are things more important to me than my burning desire to create. At least when it comes to nonfiction.

D.G. Hudson said...

Why does one have to exist at the demise of the other?

Consider writing the equivalent of a job. You owe it a certain amount of dedication if you want to succeed.

For the families or partners of the writer, you must also invest time in them, or they'll forget you as much as you've ignored them.

I agree with Hemingway, an intellectual will sometimes see past their noses, a Pollyana won't. That's not always negative, I call it realistic.

Amy R Rivera said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amy R Rivera said...

Good question. I'm not sure I am up to the task of applying Faulkners cut-throat methods.
In my manuscripts, I take pieces from the people around me. For me, artistry has to come from an honest place. Like Isaiah mentioned, "anything they say can and will be used as fodder for my literary adventures," And the adventures are of my choosing. I'm with Carolyn on this, too. Flaws makes characters more interesting. I pick and choose the ones I want from the people around me, stretch and amplify them until I have what I want. The inspired source usually has no clue- like the saying that every family has at least one crazy person. If you don't know who it is, it's probably you. The people I love are both good and imperfect. As a writer, my imagination can only take me so far. For the rest, I must write what I know.
My environment sparks creativity. If the unflattering characters are similar to anyone I know... it's not my intention to offend and I hope that my friends and family would be happy to know I draw so much inspiration from them.

Bryan Russell said...

I'm of the people come first variety, particularly as you can write great work any which way while treating people any way you choose. As has been pretty much proven by the wide variety of successful writers out there. I love Faulkner as a writer, but such comments always strike me as more about the image or persona a writer wants to convey about themselves as it does the artistic process they deem necessary. It's more about the vanity of perception than about the perception of art.

Johanna Garth said...

So interesting. I struggle with trying to convince people that I'm not writing about them or myself. It's fiction...I swear!! That being said, there are little nuggets of reality that I pull out of my everyday life to insert into my books because, honestly, how can you not.

Mira said...

Wow, great question, Nathan!

I like your description of Falkner coming from the 'kill, maim, dismember school of artistry.' Ha! :)

This is an ethical choice, which makes me happy. I could talk about ethics all day. :) Where I'm leaning with ethics is that there are definitely wrong answers, but I'm not sure there are definitely right ones. The right ones seem to be a weighing of values, and choosing which value is most important to you.

This one pits doing good in the world through kindness and responibility to other people vs. doing good in the world through your truth and following your calling. It's not an easy one, and it may be the answer is in the grey area.

Since memoir is one thing that I plan to write, I'm sure I'll grapple with this. I think where I'm leaning toward is the Buddhist precept of: Do no harm.

If I genuinely think that something I write will be harmful, I'll try to find another way to write it. But harm is tricky, because just because someone's feelings have been hurt, doesn't mean I've harmed them. They may benefit from being told a difficult truth. But I don't really know that - it's impossible to know in advance how something will affect someone else. And it's none of my business, in some ways, because I don't have the right to decide how someone else is impacted. But I also don't want to be irresponsibly hurtful. So, it's tricky. It could also be argued that holding back on my truth harms me, and that holding back on truth deprives the world of an honest voice and clarity of vision.

So, in this rambling comment (sorry) I once again come to this conclusion:

Ethical responsibility means you make the best choice you can based on your priority of values. In other words, although you may value both, what is ultimately of greater value to you: Kindness or your truth. For me, it's probably truth, when done carefully.

But I believe ethical responsiblity means you do things with your eyes open. Sorry, Falkner, but you don't get to make a blanket statement that it doesn't matter that people got hurt because you choose truth over kindness, you acknowledge that it does matter, but because of your values, that was the best choice you could make. Eyes open. Sometimes sacrifice must be made, but maturity means you acknowledge that and accept the emotional impact of it.

Well, that was fun. I love talking ethics. :) Thanks for giving me a place to work this out, Nathan!

Mirka Breen said...

I’m reminded of the quotation whose source eludes me at the moment, though repeated by Anne Lamott- “A writer should write as if their parents are dead.”


Taylor Napolsky said...

I think the real point of Faulkner's quote has been overlooked. I don't think it has to do with writing about people you know.

Nathan Bransford said...


What do you think is his real point?

I don't think in the quote I pulled he meant he was literally going to throw over his mom, but in the extended quote in the article he talks about the real-world consequences of pursuing writing as art, in terms of poverty and relationships. I extended that to memoirists just because it's all in the same ballpark - what real world consequences are writers willing to endure in pursuit of their work?

Anonymous said...

I understand what he means - and if something is worth doing, it is worth doing wholeheartedly. But . . . what an arrogant, depressing quote: "the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is worth any number of old ladies." I would like to think one human life is worth more than any material - even artistic things - and until all humanity agrees, what a miserable world. And what egotistical, horrible people such a comment makes art-makers seem!

maloneycj said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
abc said...

Hmmmm. I hesitate to come down too hard on ole Faulkner (and boy do I love that "old ladies" quote) because what he created wasn't possible without some damage, then I'm not sure I'd change anything. I imagine many of our greatest historical pieces, works of art, etc are built with much pain and suffering not only to the artist but to those around him, as well. It would be a shame to not have those pyramids in Egypt!

Grain of salt!

But I wouldn't do it. I couldn't do it. People first, like Bryan says.

maloneycj said...

I would rather be a good human than a good writer. No creative endeavor outranks the emotional well-being of my friends.

LSH said...

I am struggling with this very thing and change my mind daily on the ethics - but yet the story haunts and wants out.

Perhaps I can fictualize more of it once the core truth is out there.

JES said...

What's that line -- just because you're a great writer doesn't mean you can't be a complete jackass? Oh, okay. Maybe that's not a line after all. But it could be!

The excerpt you quoted says, basically, "The end justifies the means."

And we all know the kind of society that yields. Faulkner himself knew. This strikes me as a perfect response from someone with his/her legacy in mind at the time of an interview, not necessarily as advice.

Andrea said...

The artists’ children get the last word:

Last Rites: The Death of William Saroyan --- A son's journal written during his father's last days, Last Rites tells a more complex and moving story than the senior Saroyan ever allowed.

Heritage -- A fictionalized autobiography. Rebecca West never forgave her son for depicting in Heritage the relationship between an illegitimate son and his two world-famous, unmarried parents, and for portraying the mother in unflattering terms.

Andrew Leon said...

I think the key phrase there is "if he is a good one."
Looking at from the long view:
1. People will get over it.
2. Even if they don't, they will eventually die. (Most without leaving any discernible impact on the world.)
3. A good book will last forever.

Anonymous said...

well, to write is to want to tell the truth about something.Perhaps, somethings about your environment or even somethings about yourself.There's no better way to do that than by relating with the People around you.Out of the hearts and the things around you that's where you will find some insight into human imperfection or human perfection out of that will you tell the truth.I also personally believe there's such thing as revelation.So, if you only write what is reveal to you.Then that's a different matter.

oluwafemi Balogun
Author of From my soul to life and the society I love.
email me @

Kristin Laughtin said...

Rick Daley hit the nail on the head, especially regarding crafting unique characters. It always puzzles me when writers say that some character is based on (and basically equivalent to) someone they know in real life. It seems a bit lazy to me, in all honesty. I value creativity, and so I prefer that when people are inspired by an event or base a character off someone they know, they add enough twists and depth that transforms the character into something original. (Of course, this is much easier said than done, especially if the person on whom you're basing the character on is colorful and evokes strong feelings on his or her own.)

I'm all for discipline, and I'm all for being inspired by everything around you, but I often don't get this ruthless do-what-you-must-and-damn-the-consequences mentality. However, that's because I'm a novelist; I'm writing fiction, and there's no reason I need to jeopardize a relationship by putting a carbon copy of someone on my pages. When it comes to non-fiction and memoirs, the situation gets stickier. One has to consider the consequences to the relationship against the benefits gained or truth served of painting someone in an unflattering (or worse) light. I suppose, if nothing else, the writer must be prepared to sacrifice that relationship and understand the fallout that may occur with other mutual friends, relatives, or acquaintances.

For supportive relationships, I also agree with Rick Daley that those who provide patience and encouragement are owed the same. Everyone has dreams and troubles. Writers don't get special privileges in those areas.

Peter Dudley said...

Right on, maloneycj.

Except for a handful of true geniuses in a generation, the result won't justify the cost. In any case, it's an incredibly egotistical idea. "My art is more important than you." Oh yeah? Your art better be spec-fu**ing-tacular, then, buddy.

Some might ask, "How do you know if you're one of those geniuses if you don't sacrifice all else for your art? Shouldn't you try?" I might answer, "If you have to ask the question, you ain't it."

Anonymous said...

Write as if it were your last day alive.

Scratch that.

Write as if you're already dead.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

I don't put my husband into my books. Or my parents, my sister, or my stepchild. I rarely blog about them. None of them are writers, and they haven't chosen to make themselves somewhat public, the way I have.

But all of them have made certain sacrifices to support my writing: sacrifices of time, energy, money. Not seeing me as much as they'd like to.

On the other hand, that would also be true if I were a doctor, a pilot, or the Secretary of State. Our callings ask a price of us and our loved ones. To me that's part of living a fulfilling life. My husband could see me more often if I didn't write, but he'd be seeing a miserable me, because that's how I get when I don't write.

The balance is something each of us strike individually. Sometimes we're shut away writing. Sometimes we turn our backs on the writing desk to engage with those around us.

I have been thinking about the memoir issue you raised, though, having just finished reading Joyce Maynard's AT HOME IN THE WORLD, about her relationship with JD Salinger.

AR said...

Could a poet who'd robbed his mother have written "Ode on a Grecian Urn"?

Cynthia Washburn said...

I write under a pen name as well as my own name. Because I incorporate personalities, stories and tidbits of people and situations I am more comfortable knowing that they and I will remain anonymous.

Lisa Walker said...

A great writer has the ability, the inspiration, the integrity to write the truth-- not at the expense of others, only at their own expense.

Lisa Walker said...

It would have been a different poem, maybe a better one...

WriteOnWendy said...

Thanks for asking the question. It has made me realize one of my biggest blocks in writing fiction is an attempt to protect those individuals, specifically one individual, who figure prominently in most of my stories. I have often argued with myself that this person does not really deserve protection - prior warning and deplorable behavior and all that - but all I've managed to do is bury it and keep the stories to myself. All your answers in the comments have helped me realize this and the importance of letting it out and letting it go. And hey, there's always a chance that the person in question won't recognize themselves in my work :)

mindbuilder said...

Unless you're a memoirist, in which case your on the chopping block from the get-go, what do you need to worry about? People almost never recognize themselves as characters and most writers tend to flavor even the most realistic portrayal of a friend or family member. But, if someone does recognize themselves and feels insulted, you can always lie and say you based your character on someone else to save their feelings. You don't need to be deliberately hurtful to create art; in fact, basing a character on someone should make you more creative. long as you give the people you love some of your time, I tend to think they'll still love you during the "Faulkner" stages of writing.

Linda said...

Faulkner was obviously not a mom. Read my post @ Linda Clare's Writer's Tips

Lani Longshore said...

I have the right to my story, and the responsibility to respect that my family and friends have the same right; the right to my creative passion, and the responsibility to respect that right for those around me. While I would like to think I wouldn't steal from my mother for my art, I have no problems telling my kids to go make their own snacks because Mommy is writing.

Anonymous said...

I have to think about this for a while. It might take some time, too. Don't laugh either. I've often wondered about this.

Jan Christensen said...

For writing memoirs, Anne Lamont had this to say: “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
As far as behaving well ourselves, I aim for a balanced life. That means time for writing and time for the people I love. Why does it have to be one or the other?

Angela Brown said...

I have at least one manuscript that I've thrown to the digital weeds because my then-hubby thought one of my characters was close to him in some way. And because of this same person, an official ex-hubby, I've resisted doing a contemporary story because he asked me not to depict him in a story. I agreed. Didn't owe it to him, but was willing to acquiesce.

Naja Tau said...

I struggle with conflicting thoughts about this topic all the time.

I agree with Faulkner 100%. But I'm rightfully scared of his advice as well. I chose to create a pen name in order to offer a bit of a privacy buffer to myself, my friends, my family, and my enemies as well. I think everyone deserves privacy and the right to be left alone.

It gets more complicated in our circumstances vs. Faulkner's, what with the internet. Books aren't being disseminated to strangers as often as they are to the author's friends and family. In that scenario, you might be more likely to get something like that "I Love Lucy" episode where Lucy decides to become a novelist and stick Ricky, Fred and Ethel in there. And then everybody sues for libel.

Art is whatever you can get away with according to Andy Warhol and almost everyone else who's "made it." But you have you make SURE you have the psychological fortitude to get away with it. I think the important thing is to be patient and sort out your feelings.

But ultimately, your life experiences are your property and your right. The people around you can't help but become a part of your life's story.

Neurotic Workaholic said...

I think it's one thing for a writer to base a character on someone he or she knows. But I think it's another thing if a writer were to reveal secrets told to him or her in confidence, even if those secrets were "fictionalized". If that happened to me, I'd feel angry and violated.

SolariC said...

I love Faulkner, but I don't subscribe to his theory of the artist. Writers are not a strange species with its own morality; we are still people who owe things to our parents and friends and spouses and children. I think that writing should be integrated with relationships so that the two feed each other, rather than destroying each other. It may be a hard balance to achieve, but it can be done.

On the subject of taking elements from people we know for characters, or the more delicate matter of writing memoirs, writers can tell the truth, but with respect. I've read blog posts where writers say horribly insulting things about one parent, while praising the other parent to the sky. That may be their opinion, but it's off-putting since the reader feels the lack of respect.

To be sure, writing is about our emotions and our raw experience, but I think they must be recollected in tranquility and made sense of by the activity of our minds. If that's the case, it should be a matter of course to take memories, even painful ones involving other people, and present them in such a way that they retain their power, but don't lash out at those involved.

wendy said...

I've been in a situation where I neglected my partner so I could spend most of my time on the computer writing, composing, illustrating my stories. I was obsessed with it back then and only really happy when creating something. Ironically, after he left because of loneliness and neglect, I began tapering off creative work. I just didn't realise or think how my total committment to creativity was affecting him, although sometimes I felt guilty when he popped his head around the office door with a humorous anecdote from something he'd just watched on TV. I realise, with horror, that I was selfish. However, he did ask to come back some years later, so maybe the situation wasn't that horrendous.

I also realise now that if one appreciates the people in one's life, they must be shown this appreciation and effection otherwise they will leave - and are entitled to. Sometimes the shock and pain of their loss is enough to make such inroads into our energy and creativity that we lose both our love and our gift. So being generous with our time and affection towards the ones we love is definitely a win-win.

The other aspect you raised, Nathan, about basing a character on someone you know is also a position I've been in. I know a very elderly lady who is such a quirky and incredible person that I started writing a whole book about her. When she visited, I'd sit beside the laptop typing down her words as she spoke. This was all with her permission and good will. We'd laugh at our (usually one-sided) conversations when I read it back afterwards. I also based a character on someone whom I didn't like nearly as much. I used a different name and place so he was fairly unrecognizable. He didn't seem to mind when he read the scenes involving his character. I never mentioned it was him, but he guessed from the familiarity of the dialogue. It was strange that he didn't mind being recreated as the bad guy. Well, at least, that was the impression he gave. *gulp* I also realise now that the feelings of one's friends and acquaintances have to be treated with a whole lot of tenderness and respect as we all have fragile self esteems that can be undermined so easily. Without a healthy self-esteem it's very hard to achieve and become successful at anything or even form satisfying relationships, so we have to be mindful at all times of not eroding this important aspect of those around us - even if it means undercutting our own ego. Just thought of a popular saying: If you forget yourself, then others will remember you.

beethovenfan12 said...

This is a quote I live by:
"No success in life can compensate for failure in the home." ~David O. McKay
I'm certain when lying on their deathbed, no one ever said they wished they had spent more time at the office. There needs to be balance.

Ruthy said...

Fiction can be a wonderful disguise for real life characters, but be careful. When my dad read my first attempt at a novel he wanted to kick my husband's butt.

Shannon said...

Wow. In a way I've spent my whole life thinking about Faulkner's words. I beleived them when I was a young person. I think that his attitude can be extremely damaging to a young person that wants to become a writer, and here's why. I interpet him to be saying that not only as a writer is his work worth more than a regular person is worth, but that he, himself, is not a regular person. But the truth is that we are all "regular" people and a young writer has a long way to go - the sheer amount of time it takes to learn to write, let alone to become successful at it. To live as Faulkner suggests is to live in a climate of isolation and hostility towards the world, I think. It's taken me my entire writing life to arrive at a place where I understand that my writing is not opposed to the rest of my life, but rather the two inform and enrich one another; that I am not different or better than other people, writing is just the way that I express my creativity. Other people express theirs in other ways but it's all the same energy. The writer part of myself is not better or separate from the other parts of myself. This is such a complicated issue, especially when you throw in what it's like to have to make a living in spite of your writing ambitions. I actually spent seventeen years writing a novel about this exact issue as I tried to work it out for myself.

John Stanton said...

This post reminded me of a t-shirt I once saw, "Don't mess with me or I'll put you in my novel!"

Elizabeth Varadan aka Mrs. Seraphina said...

I think writers owe people in their lives respect. By that, I mean yes, of course writers are inspired by real events and by real people they know, so there is no way you can be immune to the way they seep into your creative process. But it also makes for better writing when you massage reality and blend events and mix them up and change a character trait or two. That's where the creativity comes in, and that also is how one's writing taps into universal characters and themes and gets to a deeper story.

Matthew MacNish said...

If my family didn't want to end up in my writing, they shouldn't have been so evil.

Ebony Adedayo said...

I found this pretty hard to do as I was writing my first book. When I started writing it, I used people's names and then realized that would easily backfire so I changed the names. Still, I struggled with the thought of how I could be offending/ hurting people by even using any likeness of them in a very real story about my life/ personal growth. In the end, I decided that the story was about me and my life, and how said persons had interacted with it at one point or another. I still tried to be as tactful and respectful as possible, but went with the story I had burning inside of me. Had it just been about me and no other characters, it would not have been as interesting.

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