what stories are ours to tell?
Last night, I listened to a song my friend Becs wrote. It was, loosely, based on a romantic situation in which I’d found myself over the past few months. And it made me cry. I considered FaceTiming her, bloodshot eyes and all, to show her my very visceral reaction. (Unsurprisingly, I did not, relying instead on texts because I didn’t trust myself to talk without once again devolving into tears). It was strange, wildly strange, to listen to something that in some small way told my story—but something that I didn’t write. And it made me think of all the times I had jotted down notes for short stories based on situations I had not lived through, but that my friends had.
Often, I stop these stories before I really start them, unsure of what is ethical and what is most certainly not. In the most meta of fashions, I wrote a short story a few years ago about a character who loses his friends because of a play. In that play was a story they believed wasn’t his to tell. My short story has no real resolution, because even then I had no real answer.
A friend of mine recently opened up to me about a period of her life I couldn’t even imagine going through, let alone go through by myself as she so often did. When I returned home from our conversation, my initial reaction was to fictionalize what she told me. And I was just as quickly ashamed, feeling no right to call her story “inspiration.” When does inspiration become appropriation? Was I capitalizing on my friend’s pain?
But the more I thought about it, I wasn’t so sure that was it. I felt something when my friend opened up to me, something I couldn’t quite imagine but that illicited intense emotions nontheless. I wanted to write because I wanted to understand those emotions in the best way I knew how to — by writing. It was my way of empathizing. Though so often we are told to ignore authorial intent, I think intent can make a difference when empathy is at the core.
But as of today, I still have no plans to write that story. Even with the best of intentions.
In her book of essays So Sad Tody, Melissa Broder begins “I told you not to get the knish: thoughts on open marriage and illness” discussing this same dillemma. Her husband lives with a chronic illness; it is not something she often addresses. And she says as much, in the beginning sentences: “I did not think [his illness] was my story to tell. But the illness is a third party in our relationship….In this way perhaps it is my story, too.” Put in this manner, Broder does have some claim to write about her husband’s illness because it has affected her life in such a degree.
Becs did not ask my permission before she wrote her song. It did not cross my mind that she should. After all, if effect gives you some semblance of ownership, then the myriad anxious texts I sent her were essentially my permission. But how much does something have to affect you before you can speak to it? Before you can tell it? It seems that there is some unspoken line, but no clear rules on how this line is drawn.
Effect does not beget ownership, in the same way that honest intent does not negate appropriation. I don’t think we should only write what we know; but I also don’t think you can fully inhabit someone else’s story. I’m beginning to think the most you can do is be thoughtful.
And this all begs the question, at the end of the day, are our own stories ever fully our own?