As a novelist, my job is to create something out of nothing. Every writer is asked where ideas come from, and often we don't have an answer. They pop up out of the maelstrom of curiosity, wonder, experience and innocence that make up the subconscious mind. They seem marvelous, sometimes, when the story is complete, but they are fragile, insubstantial things at their inception.
As work progresses on my current novel, I've had occasion to turn to friends and ask for input. In this instance, as in no other, I have been stunned by the anecdotes--the personal and harrowing experiences--these friends have offered. I could lift them, practically word for word, from our conversations, and insert them in the book. Of course I wouldn't use the names of my friends, and the situations are so close to being unbelievable that I can't think anyone would guess whose stories these are. But is that ethical? And would it serve the story, and by extension, the author?
I have to confess that I've always been a bit impatient with the "semi-autobiographical" novel. It has always seemed to me that a writer should either write the autobiography already, or write a novel that incorporates her experiences without literalizing them. Every author, I'm sure, finds her work informed by her own life and the lives of those around her.
But these stories! They fit the theme of the novel, and they help to support the plot points. The people involved are deeply human--because they're real--and their experiences are both painful and poignant. I can't acknowledge them, because their tales are told to me in confidence. Is it abusing my friends to use their stories literally?
I think so. I think their stories should be adapted, shaped into backstories, made to fit into the narrative rather than build the narrative around them. I believe this is both ethical and, probably, practical. I hope I can do this in a way that honors the reality of their experiences, and acknowledges the pain of them.
Would you, as a writer, make a different choice? I'd be interested to hear about it.