The patchy ethics of writing about friends

It’s been said that you shouldn’t sleep with a writer unless you accept that they will probably write about you.

I think this is true of having any kind of relationship with a creative person, but I think there’s more to it than simply taking inspiration from (or just recycling) what’s around us.

When I write about relationships that are inspired by, or based on, those in my life, it’s a way of discovering and rationalising the world around me. It allows me to work out feelings, emotions and ideas in a relatively safe environment. The story relationship might only be very loosely linked to something that really happened, and the emotion in the story might be much weaker or stronger than actually experienced. What I’m writing isn’t truth, but often as aspect of it that I feel the need to explore or excise.

Writing about them is like replicating an encounter under controlled conditions. It gives the writer a sense of power and security; they’re in charge of where the story goes, what the characters will do, and allows them to explore permutations that they may not be able to in real life. It also allows us to take a small seed of something that could have happened and explore the world that could have been, to mythologise emotional experience.

This has been on my mind a lot recently. Especially so since I read Lighthousekeeping, which was given to me by a friend, and a story has been rocketing around in my head. I also had a rather difficult conversation with a friend several months ago, who interpreted a story that I wrote as being explicitly about the two of us, when really I’d taken a passing idle thought and expanded and exaggerated. She was incredibly hurt by what she saw was a deliberate attack, when, not having that on my mind, I hadn’t realised how she would react.

This made me think a lot more clearly about how the people close to me might interpret what I write, and the dangers of drawing from your own emotional experience. It makes me wonder; is it ethical to write about close friends and family? Should I seek permission first?

I just don’t know.

What would you do, or have you done, in this situation?

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About sarahgracelogan

Sarah Grace is an itinerant scribbler and general layabout. She runs a writing group called CAKE.shortandsweet, because any form of procrastination from actual writing is always attractive to the serious author of refined taste. When not distracted by laser pens, Sarah Grace writes novels, short stories and flash fiction, poetry, stage scripts and screenplays. She has performed her work at Stirred Poetry, Bad Language and Tongue in Cheek Manchester. Her first publication, Humping the Boonies is a self-published chapbook available directly from the author, or from Travelling Man, Manchester. You can find more details about her ongoing projects, not to mention a selection of free stories up for grabs right here on her blog. https://sarahgracelogan.wordpress.com/about/ She also likes to talk about theatre, film, books, photography, and especially games and other things that involve collaborative storytelling. Sarah Grace likes feedback, in whatever form it comes.

3 comments

  1. Oh no! Did you patch things up with your friend? Did she accept that you hadn’t consciously written her in?

    As I write sci fi rather than contemporary fiction, I guess I find it easier to avoid writing about people I know and our joint experiences.

    • I don’t think the genre is relevant, at least not to my writing. The book I’m working on is speculative fiction and has little to do with our world as it is now but there are relationships in there that I can see are loosely inspired by my own, if not translated as directly as the ones I mentioned above.

      As for my friend and I, yes, I managed to convince her that it was an accident!

  2. I recently wrote a piece inspired by an old relationship and I feel like it’s quite a sensitive piece, so I wouldn’t show it to the person, I might perform it where they are not…but if I was looking at putting it out there in the world in physical form, in print or online, I would show them to check they were alright with it explaining first that it is only loosely based on the past and I’ve fictionalised it a lot! I have had that experience though when a poem I wrote was perceived as an attack on a relationship and I was like, my feelings might have influenced it but I literally stole half the poem from a popular song so half isn’t even my words! I don’t think they believed me though so I ended up letting them think it was about them!

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