(The first in a series of writing tips you don’t need and didn’t ask for, but are going to get.)
Writing Tip #1
In a piece in the New York Times, Colm Toibin writes gorgeously about ruthlessness. He doesn’t quite frame it that way, but that’s what he’s talking about:
I have been writing about writers and their families so it is strange that the idea of rights versus responsibilities does not preoccupy me. I feel that I have only rights, and that my sole responsibility is to the reader, and is to make things work for someone I will never meet. I feel just fine about ignoring or bypassing the rights of people I have known and loved to be rendered faithfully, or to be left in peace, and out of novels. It is odd that the right these people have to be left alone, not transformed, seems so ludicrous.
He goes on to talk about various writers and their depredations on those they knew and loved, which transgressions may have had the possibility to seriously damage relationships. These writers—as should any writer—ignored that possibility for the greater possibility that stealing that moment or idea, or twisting that fact might make for better fiction.
Certainly I have done this in my own work, and as far as I know, the only person who was hurt by it was my father, but he understood. But it was a small thing, and too good and telling a detail to use in the way I preferred. I don’t recall wondering if he’d be hurt until after the novel was well on its way to publication. I hoped not, and hoping not was the best I could do.
There is an old saw that “amateurs borrow, professionals steal,” and despite having heard the statement credited to more than one person (I think it’s T.S. Eliot who comes up most frequently, although I saw it credited to Mark Twain somewhere, long ago, as “amateur humorists borrow, professionals steal”) it is absolutely true, as Toibin would seem to concur, that it is incumbent on the author to steal what is necessary to make an evanescent moment real and as permanent as possible, because fiction “persists because it is based on the power of cadence and rhythm in language and these are mysterious and hard to defeat and keep in their place.”
All of that language, with its power and cadence and rhythm, occurs in the echoing chamber of the author’s mind as he or she assimilates and consolidates memories. It doesn’t matter if “that’s the way it happened,” said Richard Bausch, one of my earliest teachers, in a class eons ago. What matters is what happens on the page and in the story.
And so if, in real life, the child’s life was saved, and if, in the story, the child needs to die, then the child must die.
Now, if my friends and loved ones read this and decide that, Hmmm, maybe I’ll keep my interesting stuff to myself, that won’t work. Because first, I may already have written about you—something you may have already read—and you probably didn’t think it was about you. And if you did think something was about you, you’re probably wrong. I can only speak for myself, but my thefts are not quite so bluntly obvious as those Toibin cites.
If a character in one of my stories has your name, that will be your first clue that it’s not about you. (Cue Carly Simon?) And the idea I stole probably would never strike you as your own idea. That’s because the writer is not just thief, but fence as well.