Saturday, November 11, 2006

like a double agent

"My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrustive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out."

That is from the preface to Joan Didion's 'Slouching Towards Bethlehem,' a collection of her essays published in magazines between the years 1965 - 1967. This collection, in turn, is part of a larger collection called 'We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live,' a wonderfully chunky book full of Didion's nonfiction, starting with 'Slouching Towards Bethlehem' and ending with work written as late as 2003.

I hadn't read any Joan Didion until I read her memoir 'The Year of Magical Thinking' last January. That was a phenomenal, stark and heartbreaking book about her life directly after the death of her husband John Gregory Dunne, also a writer, to whom she had been married for forty years. It was a beautiful book about life after the death of a loved one, straightforward and more-or-less unsentimental, and I read the whole thing at my dad's house, sitting in the exact spot on which my brother Isaac died in 2001. Ironic? Yes. Weird? No. Powerful? Certainly.

A few days ago, I saw the cover of this big, fat collection in a magazine and thought "Wow, that looks lovely, I should see if that's at the library." Then, yesterday, SK and I went to the library to pick up some things that were on hold, and to my utter amazement, there it was, waiting for me with my name on it. Apparently, I'd put a hold on it months ago and had completely forgotten about it. Nice. So now it's sitting on my desk, looking very huge and inviting and I really want to read it but probably won't have time. I did, however, read the preface to the first book it contains, and I was struck by that bit that I just quoted.

As you know, I've been working like a woman possessed on my nano novel and I've got quite the word count (over 23,000 words now, on day 11 -- 65 pages). Writing at this clip wouldn't be possible if I hadn't started with an already fully formed story that had been outlined in my head for months, full of characters based on clients I have worked with for years. I know my story really well and I know my characters really well. As I read that bit that Didion said about her presence always being against everyone's best interest, I felt a little shameful. I love my story and I love my characters, but is my writing against their best interest? I hope not.

Of course, I've changed names and evolved the characters in my story a bit. They aren't complete clones of the actual people who inspired them, but still. My story's main character is based on a guy I see every single day I work. I have a good relationship with him and he likes me a lot. I wonder what he would think if he knew I was using him, his life, his experiences, to shape a character and write a novel? Would he even recognize himself if he read it? Maybe not.

I realized something recently though that is unsettling but true and there's nothing I can do about it. To be an artist you have to be ruthless. Especially to be a writer. In a way, you belong to the world, not to your friends and not to your family. Nothing can be sacred. You have been called (and given the tools) to share something, to expose something, to broadcast something, to reshape something. You might hurt people, you might alienate people, you might hurt and alienate yourself, but you have to do it. It is your job on the planet.

I'm in a slightly different position, because I am a mental health worker and my confidential relationship with clients is the only thing that gives me access to their stories. So I have a legal and moral obligation to respect their privacy, to change their names and identifying information. But, as a writer, I have an obligation to the world to bring their stories out and share them as best I can. As Didion says, I will always be selling them out, I just hope to do it with a lot of awareness and as gently and skillfully as possible.


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