I am a writer, and therefore a thief.
Last week the most recent case in point. A Tweet of a line I liked, one that resonated and is likely percolating in my amoral brain even now: bad decisions I don’t regret. It was, I knew, the spawn of a conversation I’d had over a drink with a new friend. It was, in my mind, fair game. She didn’t fully share that perspective.
“Didn’t we kind of arrive at that phrase together?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “I said it, and you said, Ooh, that’s good. I’m going to steal it.” She waited a beat. “I just didn’t think you’d do it so fast.” (My guilt diminished: she’s a writer, too.)
People who befriend writers should know we are unreliable in this regard. Anything said or heard or otherwise experienced is fodder for a story, an essay, a poem. Even if we say it won’t happen. Even if we promise. By and large, it’s not something we control.
Yes, sometimes it’s conscious. Something great happens and I write it down knowing I will use it, maybe intact, someday. But most often it’s unconscious. I don’t write the moment down. I don’t intend to use it. And even when it comes up at the writing desk, I’m not aware of it as something that happened. I’m not aware of stealing a private moment from someone’s life. And I mostly don’t care, because it’s been altered by memory and the fact I’m not writing about that specific person or situation.
In these cases, awareness comes later. After a draft is done, when I’ve got my editing hat on and am able (or willing) to see beyond the thread of the idea that enthralls me. Then, occasionally, I realize the alterations are minor and I’ve taken something from a life. Even then, most of the time it feels fine – a tribute, or at least no big deal. Already translated into something other just based on its juxtaposition in a story. Then, it still doesn’t feel like a moral or ethical dilemma.
But there are those rare other times.
A few years ago, I read over a story I’d written in a frenzy, on deadline, for an anthology. I realized in the reading that I’d poached a most sensitive moment from the life of a dear friend. I’d changed it some, but not much. She would recognize it, and it might cause her pain. I thought about putting the story in a locked drawer. But I didn’t. The story got to something real, something true in human experience. I convinced myself that made it OK, because I believe that’s my job as a writer. I told myself the story was fiction (which it was).
The only part I regret is that I didn’t show it to her before sending it to the anthology. That I didn’t have the conversation with her and at least give her the chance to ask me to withhold or to change it. That’s where I believe I betrayed the friendship. Not in the writing, or even in the publishing, but in the failure to have the courtesy to let her know what I’d done, and let her react, and negotiate that ground together.
That’s the line I’ve come to for my own thievery: in the rare instances where I know I’m poaching sensitive material from the life of a friend, I will commit to working through that together.
Otherwise, I remain a thief – unrepentant.
Ron MacLean's novel HEADLONG won the 2014 Indie Book Award for Best Mystery. Ron's other books are the story collection Why the Long Face? (2008), and the novel Blue Winnetka Skies (2004). His short fiction has appeared in GQ, Greensboro Review, Prism International, Night Train, Other Voices and other quarterlies. He is a recipient of the Frederick Exley Award for Short Fiction and a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee. He holds a Doctor of Arts from the University at Albany, SUNY, and has been a proud part of team Grub since 2004.See other articles by Ron MacLean