Does a writer have the right to use stories from other people’s lives?
Imagine this. You and I meet for coffee. During the course of the conversation, you tell me a story about your grandmother, a special memory from your childhood. Months later you read a story I’ve published. It features an old woman. She is very different than your grandmother, but woven into the middle of the story is the incident, the memory you shared with me over coffee. How do you feel?
I’ve heard several writers describe themselves as eavesdroppers. We covertly and sometimes brazenly listen to strangers’ conversations. We use the interesting bits, incorporating into stories, either as is or twisted and shaped into something else.
Many years ago while on vacation in the Caribbean I met a writer from New York. Over before-dinner cocktails she told me about an amusing incident in her life. She had intended to write about it some day. But before she did it showed up in a story written by a friend. I don’t remember the incident, something about an open window. However, I do remember her outrage at her friend using her story.
Is it theft when writers use real-life incidents or conversations from other people’s lives, even when those stories morph into something different during the creative process? What if we use an entire incident as is? Do we have the right to use these stories?
It is unlikely that a stranger we’d overheard and “borrowed” from will recognize themselves should they happen to read the story unless the incident is bizarre and unusual. In that case, however, we probably haven’t used it, at least not in a recognizable form, because the reader wouldn’t believe it. Truth is stranger than fiction.
Friends, however, are likely to recognize the incident even in a changed form. Are we intruding when we incorporate their stories into our fiction? I’m not sure of the answer. But I’ve asked my niece if I can continue to work on a story in which I include something from the checkered past of the house she lives in. She’s agreed. Now I just need to figure out where the story is going and how it ends.
“Every writer is a thief, though some of us are more clever at disguising our robberies”
Theft or creativity? What do you think?