Are Some Realities Too Real For Fiction?

After years of studiously avoiding even the slightest scrap of reality in my fiction, I’ve become an inveterate includer of my own world in the worlds of my characters. My narrator in The Kitchen Daughter lives not only in Philadelphia, where I lived when I wrote the book, but on the very same corner (9th and Spruce) in the very same house. None of my characters are inspired by people I know, but I’ll often nab observations of bits of dialogue from my own experiences. I once centered a short story around a single overheard line of conversation: “‘Where are you’ is not a personal question. ‘Where are your hands’ is a personal question.” My reality is, as Carolyn Parkhurst so beautifully put it in describing her own work, “the butter in the cookie.” It isn’t the whole thing, but it’s an important ingredient.

And yet this week I’m wondering if there are things we shouldn’t take from real life because they belong too much to other people.

I live in Brooklyn Heights, one of the few areas of New York City blessedly and luckily unscathed by Sandy. Every day I hear more and more stories of our neighbors’ experiences — cold dark nights in Manhattan, devastating losses in Queens, deaths in Staten Island. The hurricane has been a shared experience for this area, but not an equally shared tragedy. For many it has been an earth-shattering, life-altering disaster, like Katrina, like 9/11, like the sinking of the Titanic.

Is it disrespectful in some way to include disasters like these in our fiction? I honestly don’t know.

The novel I’m currently working on incorporates a real-life historical disaster in its plot. Somehow that hasn’t bothered me until now. Real people died in this tragic event, and I’m using it as a device to change my protagonist’s life — the life of someone who never existed. Upon reflection I’ve decided that the event is far enough in the past to be fair game for fiction, but I’m not sure why that seems like the right criterion on which to judge. A few years ago 9/11 began to find its way into novels on a semi-regular basis, so clearly other writers have a different opinion on what yardstick to use.

It’s an ongoing question, I guess. And one we also need to consider in smaller measures. We write about individual disasters in fiction far more often than the large ones. Things that affect individuals, that change them forever, even if we as writers have been lucky enough not to endure them firsthand. Cancer. Murder. Miscarriage. Suicide. Death of a parent, or a child. These are the stuff of fiction, but they are also the stuff of life, and readers will come to the page with experiences we can’t know or predict.

If fiction is made up of real things, who do they belong to? As writers, should we make them ours? Or leave the big ones alone?

 

(Flood photo, not of NYC, via Flickr Creative Commons by debs-eye)

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About Jael McHenry

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at jaelmchenry.com or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.

Comments

  1. says

    Darn! The blog ate my comment. Trying again …

    Time is the key to powerful events. It gives us distance to be able to deal with the event with perspective, rather than just the reaction.

    I was a Desert Storm vet, and it’s been 22 years since the war. I’ve always wanted to do something about my experiences, but until recently, I really haven’t been able to. I couldn’t separate me enough from my experiences to craft stories. But now I can. I’m writing about them on my blog, and I even have fun with them. I recently wrote two soldiers about female soldiers, one from Desert Storm, and they’re being published. And my novel also has a female soldier in it as well, and I’m having fun with all these characters. I’m also teaching a class military culture at Forward Motion this month. I could not have done any of these things 10 years ago.

    But for events like September 11, where it affected so many and is so powerful, it may have to wait a generation or two before we can really start talking about it. After all, they’re still talking about the Civil War today.

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    • says

      I remember one short story that came out within only a few years of 9/11 that I still think is one of the finest I’ve ever read. It’s called “A Hole in the World”. I think the key to it was that it didn’t exploit the event, just showed the impact it had on these three characters. Like Keith Cronin below said, personalizing the story was a good choice. The focus was on the characters, not including the event for the sake of being first to do so or to tell the definitive, overarching story. So I think one can include recent events in fiction, but it requires a certain degree of sensitivity to do it well.

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  2. says

    Interesting. Having experienced the Waldo Canyon fire, I did include a fire sub-plot in my book. However, I was not personally affected by the fire, although it was close enough to cause some serious concern. In the manuscript I’m toying with writing, I also thought about using a natural disaster. After all, ‘only trouble is interesting.’

    I agree that in our fiction, our characters tend to overcome these personal disasters. And I don’t think you can shy away from a story line that works. Sure, some readers might steer away from it, but that’s going to be the case regardless of your subject matter. We all have our reading preferences. Mine happen to exclude zombies, but that doesn’t keep authors from writing books about them.

    I think it will boil down to the quality of the writing.

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  3. says

    I think the answer is, “it depends.” My urban fantasy series’ first book was set in New Orleans at the time of and immediately after Hurricane Katrina. Katrina caused more than 1600 deaths, and the loss of property and the political and social issues it raised were enormous and serious. Released just after the sixth anniversary of the storm, the book got no negative reaction to the use of Katrina (just the opposite, in fact) because I treaded carefully and stuck to what I knew using my own experiences as a New Orleanian who was there through the storm. I avoided the politics, the social issues, and made it a love letter to a city I love and almost lost. So there are ways to treat sensitive and recent tragedies–if you have the ability to do it with accuracy and sensitivity. It’s a fine balance.

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  4. Bob Greene says

    Tradegy, triumph, and love; all the things that create compelling stories, maintain our attention and produces clear riveting fiction most of the time is based from real situations. To overlook a powerful story, event or tragedy and how our hero overcomes personal difficulties is the same as to ignore reality from a historical perspective. As we move further from the real events that shape the world, the less they hold our attention. The closer we are to a big event, no matter how tragic, the more we relate to the emotions of the tragedy. This is the reason my new novel is a wounded warrior triumph story based on the current war in Afaganastan and not World War II. Just my thoughts on the subject.

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  5. says

    I believe it is a matter of respect. A writer cannot ignore history or traumatic events, but they should write about the experience as accurately as their character allows. This may be tricky with more recent events, as there are hero and villains, angels and opportunists in every situation.

    I could never write about 9/11 because I viewed it from a distance—I lived far away and I was not as emotionally vested as those who lived there, helped in the aftermath, and lost loved ones. I could not write the scenes and characters with the integrity they deserve.

    In my WIP, my protagonist deals with a traumatic event. Although it is something I have experienced personally, it’s still dicey because each person deals with grief and loss in their own way. Time allowed me to write the story not as my own, but as my character’s. Experience allowed me to write her fictional account with authenticity.

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  6. says

    As writers, I believe it’s our responsibility to put these events into our fiction. These “big” experiences, such as natural disasters, wars, terrorist attacks, etc. are events that shape history. And along with shaping history, they shape our country and the people in it. The cities harmed on the east coast by the hurricane will move forward with this experience as part of their personality and culture. I believe that to ignore it could almost be a disservice – just like pretending a personal tragedy never happened. These are important events that reveal the very core of human nature. To ignore the struggles and suffering is also to ignore the triumphs and redemption stories that come out of these events.

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  7. says

    Interesting post and I’d never really thought about it that way. I guess I assumed writers would only write about it if they felt it was integral to their story. I do see how it would tramping on hallowed ground, so the writer would need to not only really know what they were talking about but show respect for those involved.

    What I have more issue with would be changing history within the historical event itself, even though as fiction I suppose writers have every allowance, but as your post says, “is that wise?” I think ultimately it has to be decided by the writer individually.

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  8. Carmel says

    “The novel I’m currently working on incorporates a real-life historical disaster in its plot. . . Real people died in this tragic event, and I’m using it as a device to change my protagonist’s life.”

    I could use these exact words to speak about my own novel. As I write from my safe zone (and watch the news about similar disasters), I fear I’m not capturing the reality of the people who experienced the event. I also feel the disrespect you talk about — using the disaster to tell my story, even killing off a character for the emotional impact. The disaster happened 75 years ago, but people are going through the same thing today (a flood). Will they empathize with the loss of life or be hurt by it?

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  9. says

    I think it’s a good thing that we stop and ask ourselves this question as writers instead of blundering in and using historical disasters simply because they’re there. Being conscious of why and how we’re putting a story in such places keeps us aware of our audience. It makes it a solemn but no less worthy task.

    I think there’s a reason why World War Two, for example, as a time wrought with disaster after disaster is so emotionally potent. We connect with the people who experienced the Blitz or Dunkirk or the concentration camps because there is a human need to understand, to empathize and perhaps to bring about healing through our art… even if those events are 70 or 700 years removed from our time.

    Personally, I couldn’t write if I didn’t address the “what-ifs” of life and history. What if the little princes in the Tower had lived? What was it like to survive the Blitz? The Dust Bowl? Jamestown?

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  10. says

    It’s all material. Right now, in this raw moment, it won’t be possible to write good fiction about Sandy, but it’s a good time to take notes and journal about it for the future.

    I have no doubt I’ll write about the Waldo Canyon Fire, as I’ve posted here before. When? I don’t know, but it’s lying there in the compost of my imagination, brewing up whatever it will be.

    Respect is in not tromping on the wounded & heartbroken.

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  11. says

    I agree with the folks here who’ve cited the issue of respect as being key in taking on any disaster or trauma in fiction. The writer needs to know that they’re walking into an event or experience that has been hurtful for people, that has probably left scars, and treat that event with the respect and care that it deserves. That being said, I don’t think writers should ever shy away from things because they might be touchy subjects. Stories can be a lens through which others, who may not have experienced those events first hand, can realize a need to connect with those who have. It can make people aware of hurts and traumas that they may otherwise have ignored or simply been innocently unaware of. In the case of historical events, I think stories can serve to keep those events relevant in our fast-paced society that frequently seems obsessed with the newest of the new, sometimes at the expense of what came before.

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  12. Denise Willson says

    Moments in time; the good, the bad, and the ugly, need to be remembered, documented. It isn’t ‘should we’ it’s ‘we must.” If not for ourselves, then for the next generation.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

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  13. says

    You bring up a good topic of ethics in our writing and being conscious of how much influence the written word can carry, whether it be fiction or non-fiction. I hope I’m always conscious and aware of this in my writing and incorporate real-life observations into my stories with sensitivity and discernment.

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  14. says

    I don’t think there is any subject that should be off-limits. However, there is big a difference between dealing with a topic respectfully and using someone else’s trauma for pure material gain.

    I heard that after the Colorado shooting on the opening night of the last Batman movie, cinemas pulled a trailer that showed a team of gangsters bursting into a theater and opening fire. If this is true, it was a no-brainer–it would be horrifically insensitive in light of recent events. Why? Because the purpose of movies like that is to sensationalize violence. “Ooh, machine guns! Screaming babes! Blood everywhere! Awesome!” They trivialize the lives of the victims for the sake of flashy adrenaline-pumping action. However, I think if it had been a drama that followed a shooting survivor as she worked through the aftermath, showing the effect it had on her life and perspective, there wouldn’t be anything wrong with continuing to show it.

    So it really boils down to your intentions. Are you writing about the tragedy because it’s “cool” and “dramatic” and you think you’ll make a lot of sales, or because you want to record and share the experiences of people who lived through it?

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  15. Erika Harlitz Kern says

    I believe that writers in their fiction should include big events that has affected many people. It is one of the tasks of the artist to point out the hurtful and the inconvenient because through the medium of fiction – the unreal – we can learn to handle what is real. If topics are off limits they will be off the agenda as well. And traumatic experiences need to be spoken about. The amount of fiction that has been written on the Holocaust has helped to deal with that trauma. In her post, Suzanne Johnson mentioned Katrina, which made me think of the TV-drama “Tremé”. To me that show is a very good example of how to respectfully and honestly deal with trauma. It made people outside of New Orleans understand better what a fantastic city it is – historically, culturally, you name it – and what strength and resilience there is among the people who live there. I have never been to New Orleans but there is a conference there in January which I most likely will attend. And because of “Tremé” I am probably looking forward to the city more than the conference.

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  16. says

    I’m currently reading Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. It’s clearly an allegory about 9/11, although the stories he is weaving together focus on a day in 1974, and the individual tragedies the characters have suffered — the loss of a brother to heartbreak and a car accident, of a son to war, and more. In tragedy, we know ourselves and others more deeply. It’s also how we get to know our characters most truly, and how they know best come to know themselves and each other.

    Respect is critical, as others have said, but the kind that acknowledges that these are real humans’ stories and that recognizes difficult, conflicting emotions. We don’t respect human experience by tip-toeing around the tough stuff.

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  17. Ray Pace says

    I say write it and make people feel it. Use your talent to take events to the heart of the reader. Why hold back? You don’t think that you’re the only writer out there who is thinking about using Sandy or any other tragedy to move their plots along, do you?

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  18. says

    I totally hear where you’re coming from, Jael! I have a similar issue with my WIP. My character is abducted and forced into a place similar to the Indian Residential Schools where so many of our First Nations were abused. Am I being cavalier, or even exploitative, in using this heartbreaking piece of their history primarily as a plot device? I still struggle with this.

    But as a teenager I read fiction that included the Trail of Tears, the Holocaust, the Underground Railroad…these books taught me to look deeper at our history and they also taught me empathy and compassion, by putting characters I cared about in the immediacy of those of events.

    I guess, we can only hope to treat these events in our work with respect and compassion, and also hope that the people that have suffered through them, view them as an acknowledgement of the human will to survive, to challenge oppression and thrive after tragedy, and to hope, always, for a better, safer world.

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  19. says

    I don’t think anything is off limits. But I wouldn’t try to “do it justice,” creating an all-encompassing view of the event.

    Instead, I’d personalize it, showing your own unique view of the thing. That can actually be an enormously respectful gesture. Even humorous crime novelist Carl Hiassen has done this. His book Stormy Weather included a scathingly accurate view of the scumbag predators who flooded into South Florida after a major hurricane (clearly patterned after the incredibly destructive Hurricane Andrew that flattened so much of South Miami and Homestead).

    Having lived through the storm and its aftermath, I was thrilled to see how well he captured how these tragedies can sometimes bring out the worst in people – as well as the best.

    Go for it.

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  20. Linda Pennell says

    First, please let me express my sympathy for all the Northeast is suffering in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Those of us on the Gulf Coast have lived through many such events and understand what NJ, NYC, and surrounding areas face in the coming weeks and months. All of you are in our thoughts and prayers.

    As to whether one should make real life disasters a focal pint in one’s fiction, I come down firmly on the side of historical accuracy. For example, if I were writing a novel set in my hometown, Houston, in 2008, it would be absurd, and I believe disrespectful, to ignore the loss of life and tremendous damage to property brought about by Hurricane Ike. While my family was extremely fortunate, only losing power for 24 hours, I have friends who lost most of their worldly possessions and a few who lost loved ones. Many of my friends were without power for three and four weeks in triple digits temperatures. I firmly believe all of these good folks would be flabbergasted to find no mention of Ike in a novel set in September, 2008 Houston, just as survivors of Rita and Katrina, both category 5’s, would expect those storms to feature large in stories with their respective settings. Furthermore, many of them want the stories told. Fiction or nonfiction – it really doesn’t matter to them.

    By writing about real events such as disasters and wars from the fictional perspective of ordinary people, I believe we are respecting those who actually suffered and died. We may not use real people’s names or include their individual stories, but in writing about the events they experienced, we have the opportunity to lay bare their common suffering, and in doing so, honor them in the telling.

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  21. Robin Yaklin says

    Many renowned authors, Robert O. Butler and Hemingway, come to mind dive right in. No wallowing, just stories that give sense of place and time. These glimmers are the fictional side of soldier “tell-alls” on the non-fictional. Personally, I enjoy the insights.

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  22. says

    I think this (asking if you can write about something you haven’t personally experienced) is where the discussions come in about whether we’re “allowed” to write about people/experiences of another race.

    The old warnings for (or against) “write what you know.”

    I think it comes down to your level of empathy and imagination. If a real event isn’t used as a coincidence or disaster ex machina, I don’t see why not to use them.

    Recently I had an experience that made me feel very similar to a hurting woman who opened up to me. I didn’t know her well, but was applying my imagination to how best to help her. I turned to a man who’d known her longer than I and suggested my theory of similarity.

    Very hesitantly he said, “Well, you are both… human. And female. So you have that common, but honestly I can’t think of two more-different personalities.”

    Funny thing is that my hunches have only been confirmed as time goes on. Being human and female created a HUGE overlap that an old friend never saw/guessed.

    The point: As humans we all experience pain, and to try and create a hierarchy or “worthiness” like which kind of fire burns worse than another does more to separate us (yes, I know there’s variation, but we’re all burned), and I think the best thing pain can do is draw us together in our commonality.

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  23. says

    Great question Jael. I say use it. Why not? We’re writers. Use the events of the past couple of weeks to make people think, to make them feel. Use your skills to make sense of something that none of us can change.

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  24. says

    Jael,

    What you have pondered in this article is something I am pondering now, as a writer. I have recently completed a novel where the protagonist survived the 2004 Indonesian tsunami, and while the story takes place years later, a tiny portion takes place in Thailand – a place I’d never been. I questioned whether I should write about something like this – as this was a tragedy on a catastrophic scale, and I didn’t want to offend someone who survived the event. On the other hand, the novel focuses elements are poignant in our society today, coping with tragedy, survivor’s guilt, crisis of one’s faith in God and rediscovering that faith. It is because of these elements, and the need to talk about them, that I believe it is OK to write about disasters, even if you haven’t experienced them personally. I guess it is as the others have said – it is a case-by-case basis. It would very helpful if future writers’ conferences addressed such an issue.

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