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russell smith: on culture

The Canadian novelist Tess Fragoulis, author of the historical fiction The Goodtime Girl, also teaches creative writing at Concordia University and blogs about writing. She recently wrote about a tough ethical question that she and many other fiction writers face. She volunteers at a distress phone line and hears all sorts of terrible and fascinating stories, about sexual deviation, drug addiction, mental illness. They are all such patently good inspiration for written stories that one guesses that's why she took the job – a fabulist feeds on such drama, and we're always looking for slightly heightened experience.

But Fragoulis insists she would never "steal" one of these confessions, as they are strictly confidential. She writes: "I am a person addicted to stories, and their stories are more surprising, have more depth, pathos, strangeness and humour than most of the things I read." But to use their stories, even in disguised form, "...would feel like I was stealing their souls." It would be a betrayal.

This is an admirable ethical stance but one that I fear is hard to apply as a general principle to the writing life. Where else are we going to get our stories, if not from what we overhear? What else is art about but the real? The question is a persistent one; it comes up in every creative writing class. Something incredible happened to my cousin, someone will say, but if I use it, no matter how I alter it, even if I take it simply as the kernel of a story that blooms into something much larger and symbolic, my cousin will read it and she will get mad. She will feel exploited and betrayed, and most likely ridiculed as well. I don't want to do it, but wow, it's such a good story! And it would so neatly illustrate my ideas about colonialism and the environment ...

And it's not just the cousin's story we worry about. A writer's own personal story, so frequently the source for a fictitious narrative, is always recognizable to those who were involved. If I write a story about a divorce, and I use certain details about my own divorce – just for textural verisimilitude – then I can be sure my ex-wife is going to read it solely as grossly inaccurate indictment of her. And then there's the perennial "What would my mom say?" – I want to make a story about that summer I was a devoted cross-dresser, but she doesn't know a thing about it, and the shock would bring on her fibrillations again.

And you're very quickly back, in this discussion, into the truth/fiction quagmire: Should we stop pretending novels are made-up stories at all? Should we be more honest, generally, and just admit that we are writing autobiography and name all our characters after ourselves and our cousins? Is there a rise, possibly, in the number of novels that cross the memoir/fiction divide lines? If so, is there maybe no reason to maintain arbitrary distinctions between the genres?

Well, autobiographical fiction has been around a whole lot longer than blogging has, and I quite understand the urge to change names and call it made-up: Once you change names, you automatically start making stuff up; it's magical. Everything changes once you start thinking in terms of story rather than truth: The real events become distorted; they only serve to lead to the kind of emotional or intellectual conclusion (the bit about the environment and colonialism) that doesn't occur in real life anyway.

And as for other people's secrets – the stories that are "not mine to tell" – of course they are mine to tell. All stories are mine. The whole world's mine.

Sometimes I warn my friends that I carry a notebook. Sometimes I don't. I don't have an ethical problem with using elements even of confessional conversations, as long as no identifying details are used. No one will know where I got the terrifying insight into schizophrenia or obesity, so don't worry.

As for your cousin – to hell with how she feels. Your book is going to be read mostly by people who don't know her, and the reality of her life is immaterial to them. They are not reading to find gossip about your cousin. And your book will be around for a lot longer than your cousin will – gloriously factually untrue, emotionally true, immortal.