What Do We Owe the People We Write About? | Issue 7
by Kathryn Mockler | On boundaries and writing
Early this month Kristen Roupenian’s 2017 short story “Cat Person” went viral again when it was revealed in a Slate article that Roupenian used real life details to create her protagonist — details she gleaned from the social media accounts of the ex-girlfriend of the man who inspired her story. If you are unfamiliar with this “controversy,” the Guardian has a great Q&A to catch you up.
Some people thought what Roupenian did was creepy or crossed a line or was unethical. Many fiction writers were not all that surprised and acknowledged that using details from life for a fiction writer is pretty much par for the course.
But there does exist a tension between a writer who writes about the world and people around them and how those people are affected by the writer’s words. This impact can depend largely on how widely the work is published, how it is received, and how the person being written about feels about their relationship with the writer and how they’re being portrayed in the work.
If Roupenian’s story had been published in a small print magazine that few read, we certainly wouldn’t be reading numerous think pieces on this story. Is it unethical to use details from life and/or include real people in your writing or does it only become so if the story hits a mainstream audience and commercial success?
At first I was like “Oh give me a break — who cares if writers steal details from life?” But as I considered it more — it’s not a bad idea to think about personal boundaries and ethics as it relates to writing about people in one’s life — whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction.
I’m not so interested in the specifics of the “Cat Person” story, which has been written about ad nauseam, but I am interested in thinking about what we owe the people we write about whether they are friends, family, or strangers.
In her essay “An Education,” from her nonfiction book Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, Cathy Park Hong explores artistic friendships between women and recounts an important friendship she had with two artists — Erin and Helen — when they were all in art school together. Hong wants to include biographical information about Erin in this essay — a family tragedy that occurred — but Erin says their friendship will be over if Hong includes this information in her essay.
Hong agrees to take them out. In their place, she shares their conversation about the ethics of writing about other people.
Hong has been long estranged from their other friend Helen and writes about her in great detail including Helen’s mental health struggles in college. She uses a pseudonym for both women, but Erin questions Hong on why it’s necessary to take from other people’s lives? She wonders what would Helen think of the essay and what care has been taken?
Hong answers in a way that likely resonates with many writers — both fiction and nonfiction — when faced with this ethical dilemma. She says: “ … it’s unrealistic for me as a writer not to take from other people’s lives. I’m not some friendless orphan. My life overlaps with others so I have no choice but to take from others, which is why writers are full of care, — but also, if they are at all truthful — a bit cruel.”
When I first started out and was excited to be writing anything at all, I didn’t think about the implications of what I wrote on the people I wrote about, which was mostly my family. The first short story I published was called “Fishing,” and it was about my fraught and relationship with my father and the aftermath of my parent’s separation. In the story and in my real life, my father would not admit that my mother was an alcoholic. If she was an alcoholic, it meant he had to do something about it. So he chose denial. The story was fiction but also largely autobiographical and had, much to my surprise, won third place in the Toronto Star’s annual short story contest. I won $1000, and had my picture in the paper. In my family, getting a story published in a national newspaper was a big deal. .
Before the story came out, I warned my parents that some depictions were autobiographical. My mother who had stopped drinking when I went to university supported me writing about growing up in an alcoholic home. My father, however, could not bring himself to read the story. I even told him that he probably would be relieved reading it, that it likely wasn’t as bad as he thought, but he couldn’t do it, and I respected his decision.
But his parents read it. And my grandmother, who I wasn’t particularly close to, took me aside on a visit and told me that she read my story and that it was good. She thought my father should read it to know what it was like for me as a child and how I felt. I was stunned. These were not the kind of things that were said in this family who normally had a very Catholic way of sweeping unpleasantness under the rug.
Do I feel remorse about writing so publicly about my childhood and my relationship with my parents? No. I don’t want to hurt them. However, I didn’t ask to be born, my childhood was not great, writing saved me, and this is who they got.
But beyond my parents, over the years I’ve come up with an informal list of personal rules around who I write about and how I approach it.
For instance, I won’t write about my sisters because they have a right to their privacy, and it would be an ethical breach and betrayal to write about them — also my older sister is a writer.
Generally if I use details related to friends or acquaintances, I try to disguise and combine details and character traits so that no one character is a replica of anyone I know. But this wasn’t always the case. I used to use details about friends from my past pretty freely because I thought few people would be reading my stories and poems in small print magazines. But now that I most often publish work online and it’s more easily accessible, I’m careful to disguise.
If I write about my husband, he has to give me consent or I won’t publish the work. I once wrote a story that I quite liked about us encountering a dead bird, but he did want me to publish it, so I didn’t.
Many of my friends are writers, so I’m careful not to encroach on their lives or personal stories. But if I did want to use something, I would seek permission first and be upfront about it.
For me, no story is worth hurting someone I care about. I generally try to operate with this simple rule to best of my ability: people before art.
For strangers, I use details freely and often eavesdrop on conversations for dialogue and sometimes whole story ideas. I’m a pretty ruthless eavesdropper — I have to admit. It is a good idea to not sit beside me in a coffee shop or restaurant.
Then of course there’s always the problem that no matter what you do, people will recognize themselves in your fiction even if you’re not writing about them at all, even if they bear no resemblance to your story or characters.
Women are rarely given the benefit of the doubt about whether their work is fiction or nonfiction. I once placed a short story with a publication only discover after it was published that it was listed as nonfiction even though I submitted it as fiction. Many people treat “Cat Person” like it is a personal essay instead of a short story.
I was guilty of assuming autobiography of a fiction writer earlier this year when my older sister wrote a fictional story that had a younger sister and a mother in it. Susan took great pains to prepare our mother before she shared it online explaining that it was a work of fiction and the mother was not her. She was worried about hurting our mother’s feelings.
I, on the other hand, flew off the handle when I read the story. “I don’t write about you,” I said. “Why would you write about me?”
“That wasn’t you,” she said.
“The kid was a brat and I was a brat like that.”
“A lot of kids are brats. I babysat a lot of kids when I was a teenager. — not just you”
What are your boundaries when it comes to writing about the people in your life — your children, parents, siblings, ex-partners, friends, co-workers, strangers, acquaintances, or enemies and the people in their lives who they may tell you about?
Kathryn Mockler is the author of five books of poetry and several short films and experimental videos. She’s the publisher of Watch Your Head, an online journal devoted to climate justice and the climate crisis and Send My Love to Anyone, a newsletter on all things writing. She co-edited the print anthology Watch Your Head: Writers & Artists Respond to the Climate Crisis(Coach House Books, 2020) and her debut story collection is forthcoming with Book*hug in 2023.