Should I change the names to protect the innocent?

Some of my best stories are true. What are the ethics?

By Cary Tennis

Published February 5, 2009 11:42AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I'm a little over 50 and had a life on and around the arts scene for much of it. Now I work in alternative health as a practitioner. I would like to start writing about many of the people I've met. I've been told I'm a good writer by the little stories I have had done so far. I know that characters take on their own life and that every character (so far) is some facet of myself.

However, I can't help but feel my stories would be much richer should I incorporate aspects of the lives I have been touched by over the years. I know this has been a vital part of many writers' work since writing began. I wouldn't betray the trust of patients; they would be changed most. But what about my friends, both current and past? Is there an ethical limit to using other people's stories? I think you catch the gist of this.


Dear D.,

In writing, I put the creative spirit first. I assume that the voice is innocent, that something needs to be told, and that the motives of the voice are good.

Later come questions of how the writing might affect other people.

In other words, I work backward from a radical stance of absolute artistic freedom toward the social reality of consequences.

As far as consequences: I allow myself the occasional mistake. And when I have made a mistake, hurt some feelings, revealed something that ought not be revealed, placed intimates in a difficult light, I find it doesn't help, at that point, to argue on principle that "the creative spirit is always pure of intent." The creative spirit may indeed be like a pure artesian force desiring only release. But there is also the wielder, the person, the vehicle, mixed, complex, obscure even to himself but responsible for his actions. When things go awry, I do not blame the muse.

In that way, we allow the voice to speak, and then later use our judgment in a helpful way.

There is some good advice on this topic in Pat Schneider's book "Writing Alone and With Others," which is the book that serves as a guide for the workshops I do. In fact, a good place to gain some practice roping this anarchic muse and dancing with it, would be in a good, healthy workshop of the type that Pat pioneered. See if there is one in your area.

So, basically, as far as how to deal with the incriminating details, how about this: If you want to tell the story of how your wife fell down drunk in a mud puddle outside a Sizzler, maybe you will tell it, but maybe in a second draft you will change her name, and the name of the steak house, and the name of the city and the name of the state and maybe the gender of the person and maybe the person wasn't drunk but addled on prescription pills unwisely mixed, and maybe it wasn't a mud puddle actually but a harmless stumble with a graceful recovery that reminded everyone of those great early days with the Joffrey Ballet. You start somewhere and move progressively away from the actual details, as a jazz player improvises against a tune that is never actually rendered but always played against, like dancing against a shadow, like making up a code. In that way you can paint an apple from the inside out, giving full vent to your emotions while never showing the apple.

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What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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