ACW

ACW

Friday, 19 February 2016

Is eating people wrong? by Veronica Zundel

Are you a cannibal? No, I’m not referring here to missionaries boiling in a pot, but to the writer’s habit of squirrelling away little bits (and sometimes big chunks) of her and her family’s everyday life to use in her writing when appropriate, and sometimes when inappropriate. Obviously, if your everyday life is the main subject of your writing, or you're writing biography, then it’s mostly appropriate, but do you also cannibalise daily life, its ups and downs, its humour and tragedy, for other kinds of writing?

Not long ago I was writing my monthly column for Woman Alive magazine, and I found myself composing several paragraphs about a neighbour who has suffered a huge trauma and is very slowly recovering, and whom I have been trying as best I can to support. I even sent off the column to the editor. And then after several days or even weeks, I realised something: my neighbour reads the magazine, or at least has a subscription which I bought her. She is also a very private person: what would she feel if she opened the page and found her life plastered all over it? At the very last minute, I contacted the editor and asked if it was too late to change the column. Fortunately it wasn’t, and I replaced the paragraphs about my neighbour with a story of supporting my late brother through his mental illness many years ago.

Is it ethical, is it necessary, to use bits of other people’s lives in one’s writing like this? Should they have a say in whether you do? (that is, if they aren’t complete strangers like the two teenage girls I overheard at the local High Street before Christmas, one saying to the other ‘I’m going to make the knickers out of tinsel’!).

Tinsel knickers? Ouch!

When I wrote my last book, about spiritual lessons from the experience of parenting, I inevitably included many details of my son’s childhood, though avoiding any that were too embarrassing. Before sending off the MS, I asked him to read the book and tell me whether he wanted me to change his name to anonymise it a bit more. He was OK with my using his real name, but in my column I still refer to him as ‘Genius Brat’, while hubby is ‘The Grouch’.


In the end, I suppose all writers are cannibals, picking up oddments of other people’s lives and transforming them, sometimes more disguised, sometimes less, into their work. The question is, are we exposing what should not be exposed, or doing harm to someone else and their reputation or sense of privacy? It may depend on how much you alter the details ‘to protect the innocent’, but when it comes down to it, there are some stories that you just don’t have the right to tell. Working out which, identifying what you can’t say no matter how much you want to - ah, there’s the real art.


Veronica Zundel is a freelance writer whose latest book is Everything I know about God, I've learned from being a parent (BRF 2013). She also writes a column for Woman Alive magazine, and Bible notes for New Daylight. Veronica belongs to the only non-conservative, English speaking Mennonite church in the UK, and also blogs at reversedstandard.com

8 comments:

  1. So far I have only written autobiography so obviously had to include incidents from my every day life. I got permission from everybody I mentioned by name and told them what I was putting about them. If I no longer had contact with them I changed their name.

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  2. Great post. I use chance snippets of conversations I hear although they are usually vastly changed from the original. As I write fiction it blends into the whole picture

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  3. This is a great article! I have often wondered whether we do this more obviously when we start out as writers but I think we actually do it all the time. However, I hope I'm more respectful of the privacy issue than I used to be. The art of getting ideas from everyday life and adequately disguising then - that is a developing talent. A fabulous post!

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  5. I don't see how we can avoid using our own lives and the lives of those around us, or things we see/hear/read. What other fodder is there? But I suppose it usually gets so recombined that (we hope) it's not so recognizable that we are in danger of being sued!

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  6. I wrote my first book - a serious novel - sent it blithely off to publishers/agents etc etc, and had it read by a few people. Now I'm SO glad it didn't get accepted, though it was a near thing at one point. There was far too much in there about people close to me. It's in a (virtual) drawer. If I live until I'm 120, and they've all died, I'll publish it.

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  7. I have to admit to having mined my children's early years for my current WIP - although it is a fictionalised account, and I have changed quite a few details. Thanks for encouraging us to get the right balance.

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  8. I hope it doesn't sound pious/goody 2-shoes to say I don't find myself doing this. Maybe because I don't take those notes down when it happens! In actuality, I suspect also because my brain seems to have processed stuff into the general by the time I'm writing so there's usually nothing left that is in the particular. Or maybe 'cos I write a lot in first person, rather than third, 'out there' person, but the characters are not 'me'. Once, and this is the only time I remember using an incident which really happened, I used an incident in which a friend has his eye injured by a squash ball ... but it wasn't a big crucial incident.

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