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Protection for Witnesses

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I read a great profile of the wonderful Lorrie Moore at The Millions today. (If you're bookish and you haven't been there, I recommend you stop reading this post now and head on over to that website, linked above. Then come back and thank me.) A sizeable portion of the article discusses one of the perennial concerns of writers and those who love them: borrowing. Borrowing. Because writers are often observers--even witnesses, standing one degree removed from life--it's almost inevitable that they're borrowing things from the people around them, whether strangers or friends.

Others closer to Moore have also questioned whether or not they’ve made it into her work. “People get confused. People get paranoid,” she says, telling the story of a man she once dated who became suspicious of a specific character. “First of all, the character is a woman,” she remembers saying to him, “Second of all, darling, the character has a job.” (from Arianne Wack's The Millions profile of Lorrie Moore)

I recently wrote a story about a woman who worries that her boyfriend may accidentally kill her in his sleep. I stole some of the details surrounding this couple from people I know. I translated most of the details I stole into other details. Ultimately, the story is a fiction, the problems and dynamics of the couple a complete fabrication that may, but probably doesn't, reflect the reality of their real-life relationship. My husband, who is a great first reader for me, had only one comment about the story: "Don't let them see it."

This is a problem when you're working hard to publish your work.

And when you're actively promoting any work that does get published.

It's not the first time I've struggled with how to go about borrowing, or not, in my fiction. Last year I worked on one of my few realist stories, which was built from a pastiche of real-life source materials: things I saw in the Navy, details of a cousin's accident, snippets of stories from another relative's farm, bits of biography from someone I knew back in high school. Even the names were borrowed.

The story proved a failure (though I'd like to return to it one day), and had become a complete fiction in the process of being written and rewritten. Jack, the main character, was Jack: he lived only in my imagination, and his life was his own. But I worried, nonetheless, that if the people who helped inspire me read it, they would be more furious than flattered to have played a part in sparking my imagination.

Last year I went on an Anne Lamott streak, reading her memoirs Operating Instructions and Some Assembly Required, her book on writing, Bird by Bird, and one of her novels, Imperfect Birds. In her writing she sometimes discusses borrowing--taking friends, say, bowling, with the stated understanding that she's going to be using them as inspiration.

Is that the most honest way to borrow? Do we owe that to the people around us?

And speaking of memoir, that space where borrowing turns into something closer to strict transcription of events as you recall them to have transpired--well, that's even trickier, isn't it? I've been trying my hand at a memoir built of flash-length essays (under 1000 words) about my time in the Navy. I'm quickly realizing that I may not want even to try to publish it, given that I may lose friends out of the deal (and that doesn't even begin to touch upon the difficulty in making sure I avoid revealing anything classified, which could lead to loss of my personal liberty in the form of a prison sentence, I suppose).

Incidentally, my husband suggests the solution to this particular problem is to set it in outer space. He lobbies me almost daily for a space opera.

Does the answer to my problems lie in a galaxy far, far away?

Add a degree in anthropology to the mix, which makes me passionate about accuracy in observation and getting things "right," and I'll admit I'm stymied. My favorite professor in grad school once said something to the effect that the main difference between writing anthropology and writing literature is that anthropologists have to stick to the truth, especially since truth is elusive. If the native wear green hats, then they must be written down as green hat wearers. A fiction writer can make the hats blue if that somehow better serves the story. But is making the hats blue enough to make the story your own? And it almost goes without saying that keeping the hats green won't save you if you get everything else wrong.

So. How do you deal with the question of borrowing in your work?