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