Monday, March 31, 2014

On Someone I Used to Know, and a Writer's Debts and Promises

I knew someone quite a few years ago, about whom I have never written.  In a certain way, this is odd, because This Person (to whom I will refer as TP) ended up being quite important to me.  I don’t write about him because I promised him I never would.  He is intensely private—secretive—and hates being the subject of other people’s scrutiny.

TP had some wonderful qualities, among them resilience, humor, empathy, an astounding work ethic, and an uncanny ability to understand the way other people thought and felt.  TP was spiritually inclined, which was not something one would have assumed after knowing him casually.    He grew up in a home riven by sexual and physical violence, and this fact dominated his emotional life long after he made his escape.  The extent to which he was able to manifest any sort of decency is a testament to his soul’s enduring sweetness.

Today I was thinking about the debt writers owe the people in their lives.  Without them, we wouldn’t know how the world works, which is to say, how other people—those with regular jobs who are able to socialize freely, without distancing themselves and mentally taking notes—function. 

But when writers create characters, we have to be careful.  We can use aspects of our friends and relations and acquaintances; we can even create a character largely based on someone we actually know.  (And even if we make someone up out of whole cloth, a lot of our friends will sidle up to us at parties—or coffee shops, if we don’t go to parties—and say, “That was me, right?”)  But some people have to be off limits.

I never use my kids in my books.  Never.  They are adults now, but still.  Never.  It means I interact with them in a normal way, which is to say, as their mother.  (Is that normal?  You know what I mean.)  I never listened to what they said and wrote it down, hoping to “use it” somewhere.  (Okay, in all honesty, I did that once.  My son wondered what would happen if you cut someone's head off and then held it up in front of a mirror.  "Would he see anything, just being a head?" he asked.  It was too funny to ignore.  I put it in something.)

Same with my life partner.  He will never be a character in anything I write.
And the same with TP.  Which is a shame, in a way, because he would be fascinating to write about. 

But it would be cruel, and so I won’t.

And also, I promised.

Maybe this makes me less of a writer.  I'm not sure what other writers do, how they approach this.  But I don't know any other way to be.