Thursday, May 1, 2008

Have you seen?

This morning brings some weirdness in the book world. A story in the LA Times says that scam artists have called bookstores, claiming to be authors scheduled to read in said stores, then telling sad, urgent tales of loss and asking for money to get to the gig! Good plot lines, bad characterization, because the real authors do object to being used for nefarious purposes. Great word nefarious. All of which relates to the ethics of writing and how we treat actual people who serve as springboards for the characters we create.

Recently, I sent a copy of a poem I had written about her to my aunt. And I held my breath a little. Not because I lied or intentionally misconstrued her character. But I did mention family business and wasn't sure she would approve of "airing our laundry." Notice I did not say dirty laundry. It wasn't risque or illegal or immoral, just private. She certainly rose to the occasion and plans to copy the poem and send it to her sister and all her children. Now that's what we hope for. But in a recent workshop, the leader, Shari Caudron, told of a writer who used one physical trait of a long-time friend. The friend was furious and broke off contact with the writer. And there is no guaranteed way to avoid using our own lives in real writing. I believe that most fictional characters rise out of a stew of familiar people. But that's not to say they are those people. As a writer, I have to tell the truth, but "tell it slant" as E. Dickinson says. I have to take the chance that someone with thin skin will object, will see her/himself in my work.

My current reading is Mark Doty's Dog Days. I've met Mark, met his late partner Wally, and I respect him. He tells us in this memoir about Wally's final days, his own reactions, his new relationship, and the history of his beloved dogs. He has a light touch, an honest touch. And I don't think Wally would object at all. Surely the dogs don't care. Mark is, himself, the key character and he doesn't object. So maybe good memoir has much to teach us about good characterization. Help is where you find it.

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