When I was interviewing Daniyal Mueenuddin for the June
issue of The Writer, the conversation
veered away from his writing in particular into the territory of the ethics of
using real people in your writing, whether in fiction or memoir.
(When interviews get somewhat off course, it invariably it leads to an
interesting discussion.) Coincidently, the question about privacy and how much
of someone else’s life is fair game in your writing has come up several times
in conversations I’ve had with writers since then. This, of course, is not new.
Mueenuddin directed me to a pertinent exchange between the poets Elizabeth
Bishop and Robert Lowell.
Lowell had received angry letters from his wife, Elizabeth
Hardwick, after he left her for another woman. He later used them in his poems.
Bishop, his longtime friend and confidant, with whom he had a long
correspondence, felt the use of the letters was a betrayal of sorts and said
so. Here’s the exchange as published in a review of Words in Air by
Thomas Mallon that ran in The Atlantic Monthly.
“... during the early 1970s, when
Lowell gets ready to publish The Dolphin,
a volume in which he has altered and versified some of the angry, hurt letters
that Elizabeth Hardwick wrote to him after he’d left her for the Irish writer
Caroline Blackwood. Aware of his own recklessness, Lowell tells Bishop in
February 1972, ‘I am going to publish, and don’t want advice, except for
yours.’ Bishop’s slow-starting response—‘It’s hell to write this’—turns almost
“ ‘One can use one’s life as
material—one does, anyway—but these letters—aren’t you violating a trust? IF
you were given permission—IF you hadn’t changed them … etc. But art just isn’t
worth that much.’ ”
Just how much is art worth when it
comes to personal laundry involving others’ lives?
There are the J.D. Salingers on one end of the spectrum and
the Robert Lowells on the other. My inclination is do no harm, but that line
between telling truth and causing no harm is different for everyone. What do
—Elfrieda Abbe, publisher