Saturday, March 06, 2010

Carol Shields on the Notion of Protecting the Living

In a famous essay on writing entitled "Opting for Invention Over the Injury of Invasion," the late Carol Shields wrote about the dilemma every writer faces: whether or not to use true material in a fictional work. Shields came to the decision early on that she would not write about her family and friends "since I want them to remain my family and friends" (1).

She did admit, however, that it is tempting to use the material innocently provided by the eccentrics around us--those people who live in blissful ignorance of our spy-like tendencies, who don't realize that every word, every verbal nugget which leaves their mouths is being mined for significance, for irony, for humor.

Shields shares an anecdote about the writer Robertson Davies, who was asked why he waited until he was sixty years old before he wrote his much-acclaimed Deptford Trilogy. Davies responded, "Well, some people died, you see."

Like Shields, Davies had decided not to take advantage of familial or friendly ties despite the boon it would provide to his writing career.

Yet many writers don't wait--they use the things they see with regularity, without apology, because they feel they are disguising this use. Many writers are of the opinion, in fact, that their friends and relatives would not recognize themselves in a fictionalized form--especially, perhaps, if they were depicted negatively. The average person, the theory goes, isn't good acknowledging his own flaws.

Whenever I write a book and ask my husband to preview it, he tells me confidently that he is sure the male lead is him. This always surprises me, since my characters are never based on him, and in some cases have been quite idealized. My husband apparently has quite a high opinion of himself. :)

But I'm curious to know if other writers use the people in the present as inspirations for their works.

(Carol Shield's essay excerpt taken from WRITERS ON WRITING, Collected Essays. New York: Times Books, 2001).


Mary or Eric said...

This is a really big issue for me. When I was much younger I wrote some pretty innocuous, humorous essays, based on real people but I became convinced that it was wrong. What right did I have to poach on other peope's lives for my own selfish writing needs? I actually wrote an essay about it for a fanzine. I agonized over that essay, trying to express the rather complicated feeliings I had. Alas. It was completely ignored. However, if you are interested it's in this pdf zine. It starts off speaking to the hobby group but mostly it's my general thoughts on the matter.

Julia Buckley said...


What an interesting--and well written--article. I suppose it would be less of a danger for authors of fiction, but a danger nonetheless, if they feel they are "disguising" someone who remains quite obvious to all who know him or her.

Your article about the flood sounded very good--and made me think of another Thurber story called "The Day the Dam Broke," which also exposed the eccentricities of his family, especially his crazy grandfather, whom they had to subdue with an iron. I wonder what Thurber's family thought of all his published tales.

Carolyn J. Rose said...

Like Eric, I've agonized over this. I make it a point not to "borrow" the outstanding characteristics of people I've known.
But all those we've encountered over the years leave traces of themselves with us--let's call it literary DNA. After many years there are thousands of traces creating a "character soup" in our memories. It's almost impossible to create fictional characters without sipping from that soup.

Julia Buckley said...

That's a great point, Carolyn, since I think people who become writers tend to be unusually observant.

Mary or Eric said...

Thurber inspired me but I suspect he was so creative that his relatives wouldn't have had much to complain about since they were, in his version, mostly fictional. But I wonder if anyone has explored the question of what his family was really like and what they thought of his versions of them. Maybe he depicted them to a T!

As Carolyn says, we probably all dip into characteristics of people we've observed to create characters. Writing historicals as we do Mary and I are probably safer than writers of contemporary stories in that there's probably less risk of inadvertently coming up with a character who would resemble someone we know too closely. The tunics and robes and such are good disguises.