In previous employment—not, I must emphasize, my current job—I once had a big disagreement with one of my bosses, feeling she had been unfair and disrespectful of me. I was annoyed with her, but not overly consumed by it, since my identity and sense of worth don’t hinge on my gainful employment. After all, I’m a writer, and hence, have the best and worst ultimate boss of all: Myself. But later in that workday, I got a memo from her, apologizing. And someone told me the reason she caved was not because she thought she was wrong, but because she was afraid I would mention her in the blog I was writing at the time. As if! (It was a blog supporting my medieval-Ireland YA novel, the Raven Girl; where did she think she fit in there??)
Then, when I was training for my current job, we had one of those around-the-table, tell-us-what-you-do things. I usually hide my light under a bushel, because when I tell people I’m a writer, all kinds of presumptions get made and…well, for some reason, I decided to throw caution to the wind and reveal that I was not just a writer, but a novelist. And frankly, the reaction was underwhelming except for one gal—who I can mention, because she ended up not getting the job. She peered at me with suspicious eyes and remarked: “Oh. You’re one of those people-watchers. I bet you listen and study people and then put them in your novels. We better be careful around you!”
To which I replied…actually, I did not reply, I just did what I usually do, gape at the speaker with a look of mild surprise and faint disapproval. But one day I’m going to say: “I’m not gonna write about you, idiot!” Or maybe just a cool, “Sorry. Most people I meet are not interesting enough to write about.”
But this is not really true. Just yesterday (I’m full of anecdotes today, must be the weather), I was at retreat-and-lecture breakfast, and was seated next to an elderly member of the Palatine religious order, a brother. After explaining to me the difference between a brother and a priest (for he was dressed in a black suit and white collar) (oh, and the difference is, priests are ordained and brothers are not), he told me his life story: I won’t go into it here, but in essence, he had suffered a spiritual and emotional burnout at mid-life, an event he still felt deeply troubled by even though he’d long since regained his faith. Of course I couldn’t help but think—there’s a book! But of course, I already wrote my spiritual-burnout book—twice, as a matter of fact. But I wouldn’t write that man’s story as he told it, using it as a template for my own fiction—that is his story to tell, not mine.
But fiction writers do this all the time, steal other peoples’ stories and lives and tell them in their own words. The term of course is roman a clef, or “thinly disguised fiction.” I don’t really do this, not because I think it’s dishonest (I don’t), but because I always like to tinker with real life and embellish it to suit my fancy. You might say I don’t like dealing with the truth. My novels are like complex, well-mixed drinks, like the kind that cost $24 at an upscale bar and have a skewer of exotic fruit thrust into them: All kinds of unique personality quirks and traits, each like its own finely distilled liquor, go into them, are soundly shaken up, and then served up in the most appealing form possible. We could argue for days whether fiction writers are essentially thieves, honest or dishonest; but the bottom line with me is, I’m not going to write about you! At least not in your true, honest, unvarnished everyday life persona. If I were, in some lapse of judgement, to actually write about you, you probably would not recognize yourself.
Perhaps the person we most write about is ourselves, which, of course makes us all narcissists. But it’s okay to call ourselves that…as long as nobody else does!