I'm always pleased when my work finds a good home, but this feels extra special because I’m actually being paid for it (very rare for short stories on the web). Now, this post is about ethics, but I'm not asking you to advise me on whether to declare this small amount of income on my tax return. (I'm not at all ambivalent about paying tax, just what it's spent on.) My discomfort relates to whether the story is genuinely mine to sell.
Don't get me wrong. I wrote the words and assembled them in the right order. I devised the plot and structure, such as it is. But the content, the central event isn't entirely fictional and, what's more, while I was present as it happened, it didn't happen to me. So in a sense, it's the little girl's story not mine.
Do other writers worry about things like this?
Where some writers see complex ethical dilemmas, others perceive creative opportunities. Mark Lawson abandoned an biographical novel after a chance meeting with one of the children of his proposed character. Nick Hornby based Marcus in About a Boy on a boy he knew from his days as an English teacher.
I might be being grandiose to imagine that "my" little girl would ever come across her story, but how would she feel if she did? I'd hope she'd feel validated but she might experience it as an invasion of privacy. I could assuage my guilt by giving her a share of my earnings – it would probably buy her five minutes of therapy – but that's not what it's about.
As Lionel Shriver has said in relation to writing a novel partly inspired by her family:
I'd worried that they might take a few lines or the odd segment of dialogue personally; instead, they took everything personally, and in the worst way – including the passages meant to be complimentary.
Text trumps truth – and especially in families there are many conflicting versions of "the truth". Writing is an imposition on reality, sometimes a brutal one. Family members who have been ruthlessly hijacked as characters have no means of redress, no outlet for their own story, no forum in which to proclaim to the same public, "But I'm not really like that!" or "That's a lie, she made all that up!"
It's important to keep in mind that the fiction writer's primary responsibility isn't to the historical facts:
If you’re basing a story or characters on real life, don’t get hung up on what really happened. You are not giving evidence for the police. When you write fiction, no matter what you are making it out of, you cross a line. Telling the real truth isn’t your job. Telling the dramatic truth is.
I draw from life – but I always pulp my acquaintance before serving them up. You would never recognise a pig in a sausage.
should just say no to? And given my tendency to confuse my memories with my imagination, should I even try to keep them separate?