Is Any Story Too Private to Use In One’s Art?
Rachel Lyon on Repurposing the Prismatic Material of Life and Love
To be an artist is to be a public person. It is expected that if you have a novel coming out, you’ll write a personal essay, or several. Even if you traffic in fiction, you are expected to share your truth. For me this problem carries with it a certain amount of irony. My novel Self-Portrait with Boy is about an artist whose best work leverages a painful, even traumatic event in service of advancing her career and reputation. Because of that I have been talking a lot about art, privacy, and betrayal. One smart writer who interviewed me for a publication I love asked, Is any story too private to use in one’s work?
It seems to me that there are at least two ways to answer the question. On one hand, to what degree is it okay to use a story that belongs to someone else? As a fiction writer I pick and choose my stories and their trappings—characters, dramatic situations, details, and images—from the world around me. Sometimes I steal and semi-fictionalize other people’s stories unconsciously. Sometimes I deliberately steal them and make them my own. I live by the truism Good writers borrow, great writers steal (attributed variously in this post-truth era to T.S. Eliot, Pablo Picasso, Oscar Wilde, Aaron Sorkin, and Steve Jobs—because what is truth, anyway?). No topic should be off-limits—if only because it can be stultifying to try to write around the forbidden.
Still I take other people’s privacy seriously. The man I’ve loved for more than a decade, for example, is a private person. Our relationship is private too. If I ever write about it I do so obliquely, reflecting and refracting the stories we share in the funhouse mirrors of fiction, until their details are unrecognizable or misplaced. We got married in a one-room chapel at a Montana truck stop. We were married in Vegas by a woman Elvis with long white nails. We married at the edge of a still black lake with only the loons as our witnesses. We’ve never married at all. You see I won’t tell it to you straight.
I have not always been so trustworthy, as a writer or otherwise. I have made the mistake of betraying people I loved by using their raw, unaltered stories in my work without their permission. I’ve learned how painful that can be. I don’t do it anymore. In restraint I’ve found how precious privacy can be. I would not tell you the truth about my private love today because its very privacy is the first thing I treasure about it.
There is another way to answer that interviewer’s question. What about stories of one’s own? After a brief survey of personal essays online you might reckon no topic of one’s own is too private to share. I have read powerful essays in the last few years so personal they hurt. Essays that grapple with the dark complications of grief. Essays about the insidious pain of racism. Coming-of-age essays about shyness, kleptomania, skin rashes, masturbation. Accounts of molestation and rape.
Sometimes our clickbait culture cheapens these stories—which is a fucking shame, because so many of them are stories that must be told. They must be told because as a culture if we do not talk about them our blindness and bigotry is at risk of calcifying. They must be told because somewhere a person struggling with similar issues will read them and feel less alone.
But also they must be told well. A deeply personal story, maybe paradoxically, requires impersonal perspective. A writer who has spent years processing the circumstances of her trauma, and its interminable ripple effects in the depths of her psyche and even body, will have more and better words for it than a woman who was traumatized a month ago. There are infinite ways to contextualize a trauma. Processing involves narrowing down the number of stories that can be told until we arrive at our own, the one story that feels most honest, that will settle into our heart, become our truth, and allow us to move on.
Which is why some of the best highly personal essays take so long to write. I know a woman whose essay about being sexually harassed took her a decade to complete. It is also why our deepest traumas are our most generative. A friend of mine has written multiple essays about her dead parents, all of which are excellent. Probably she will write more. If any stories are too private to share, they are the ones too fresh to understand, for which we literally have no words, and the ones for which we have so many words that we barely know where to begin.
“Sometimes our clickbait culture cheapens these stories—which is a fucking shame, because so many of them are stories that must be told.”
I write this knowing that my stories and myself—and what is a self if not a collection of stories?—are works in progress. My most personal stories can still be told dozens of ways. I alter my own narrative all the time. I write this as a fiction writer. If I choose my material from the world around me I cannot claim it is a world I completely understand. A fictional story is a kind of investigation into the impenetrable mysteries of the human heart and human behavior. I think of Flannery O’Connor, who famously lent some of her short stories to a neighbor down the road. The woman returned a few days later and, asked whether she’d liked them, replied: “Well, them stories just gone and shown you how some folks would do.”
Here’s what fiction can do: set our baffling conduct in relief, in the hope of seeing it a little more clearly. Drive toward truth via the bending roads of falsehood. I could not tell you the truth about my relationship even if I wanted to, because it is a story that’s still changing. It is one of those stories I have so many words for that I have no words at all, so many versions of the truth that any tale I tell about it inevitably will be fiction.
So let me tell you about the time we drove across the country and stopped in Ohio to wander the shell of the abandoned amphitheater as the sun went down and the crickets sang. Let me tell you about the time he cut his thumb slicing a lemon one winter night and we sat on the porch in an Indiana snowstorm as he bled into a clean white sock. Let me tell you about traveling through Germany, how we took a train through the Black Forest and I watched him sleep in the flickering light.
Ten years of love can warp and recolor memories, so that even when the only audience we have is each other we end up telling different stories, correcting each other every step of the way. That isn’t how it happened. It was spring, not fall. 2007, not 2011. Arizona, not Palm Springs. It happened to me, not you. You weren’t even there. The second thing I treasure most about my private love is the way its story changes.
Because isn’t love itself made in part of fictions? I don’t mean sinister fictions like obfuscation and deceit. I mean the benevolent fictions of reinvented memories and imagination. The pleasure of weaving together a shared vision of the future. The satisfaction of cooking up new plans. The thrill of confessing a fantasy and elaborating on it together. The incredible gratification of being seen as one hopes and wishes one might be, rather than as one fears one is. Let me tell you how my private love has helped me become a stronger fiercer woman by showing me that someone else imagined me stronger and fiercer than I ever thought I was. In some ways love’s fictions are its very essence. And in some ways, they are what make it too private to share.