Continuing my tradition of being about 10 years late to any trend, I am currently watching all of The L Word and Sex and The City while at the gym. Unrelated to the issue at hand, I am thinking that back-to-back episodes of L followed by Sex would be enough to make anyone who dates women quiver in terror. That said, each show features a character who is hot, hip, sexy, smart and a writer. Needless to say, I see a lot of myself in that. They are both self-centered, pathetic, overly dramatic, shallow and in some cases rob blindly from their friends lives to “create” content. This gives me pause. And quivers of terror.
Carrie Bradshaw I like. Jenny Schecter? I’d like to wring her prissy little neck and stuff her juvenile hair bows in her mouth to literally gag her on her own contrived and trite personae. (Did I say that outloud?)
But here’s the question that I’m wrestling with – and that both of these characters illustrate in varying ways. As someone in any sort of relationship with a writer, what rights do you tacitly sign over to them when you share their lives and they write about their lives? And, as a writer in a relationship, what rights to your own life do you give up in the name of the other person’s privacy?
Carrie Bradshaw – as a sex columnist in Sex and The City – pulls questions and themes from her life and the lives of her friends. She doesn’t use the exact scenarios, or names of the people who’s lives inspired her queries, but she does really think openly about some very gritty things. In the course of their relationships – and as such, Carrie’s columns – she really thinks about everything from monogamy to small penises, adultery to misogyny.
To the vast majority of her readers, it’s all just theory. Her close friends, of course, know which conversations inspired this weeks column. And then there’s the 3 or 4 degrees of separation people who may wonder if it was about them, if they know who it was about, if it was a conversation that they had with Carrie or one of her friends. And that’s where this gets interesting to me.
In my mind, as long as the identity of the “players” is concealed, and no tell tale details are revealed, it’s all fair game. As writers, we think about things, and we do it publicly. We are as fascinated by the questions as the answers.
Further, the fact that so many people may wonder is, in fact, proof that the themes in life are pretty universal, which means we probably ought to talk about them. I think that this is how I am. Sure, if I have an intense experience or conversation, I’m very likely to write about it. But I will try to make it as obtuse and theoretical as possible.
Now, Jenny Schecter, the narcissistic novelist from the L Word is a different story altogether. She just took the actual factual events of the people in her life, changed their names by a syllable, changed their professions but left everything else as is. Just wrote down the nitty-gritty details of people’s lives and published it.
The problem, besides the obvious, is that everyone knows who her friends are and that these are their lives stories. I can’t get to the place where there is anything okay about that. It’s almost not even worth discussing.
However, there is a big grey area, especially when it comes to “fiction,” whether it’s novels, tv shows or films. No writer can write about something that they have never experienced. Before you science and historical fiction people jump down my throat, let me tell you what I mean. Whether your character is an alien or an heiress, their relationships are very likely to be based on relationships that the writer has had, one way or another. The mean, dominating character who abuses his power is likely to be based on someone the author knew who was like that. Or the drawn out divorce that paralyzes the main characters is likely to based on one that the author experienced either first hand or through a friend.
The thing is, these themes – on this planet or in outer space – are thoroughly universal. Pretty much every book, tv show, film, or play you can name is built on archetypes. Why? Because most of us, whether we want to or not, fit mostly into an archetypal model. The rich geek. The hooker with the heart of gold. The down trodden mother who….. And most of our relationships also fit neatly into categories.
Those broad strokes, though they may look familiar (and even look like you) are the easy parts. They could be anyone. (Always makes me think of the Carly Simon song. “You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you.” The number of people who thought that song was about them – or should have been about someone they knew – is testament to how vain we all are. And how quick we are to find ourselves reflected in anything put before us.)
But the nuances of characters and relationships, that’s where the art lies. That’s where the writer cuts loose from anything that came before and weaves the magical “what-if threads.” Done right, we take the broad strokes that are presented to us in our lives, and we paint them with a different brush and show people what could happen if…. It becomes an emotional Petri dish in which the characters we know in our real lives can try on different decisions and get a different result.
I could write a crazy mother that may look a lot like my own crazy mother, but I could have her make different decisions. Or base a man on my own husband or boyfriend, but play things out differently. OR use a relationship I have, but change the characters…..
You get the idea. But no matter what the writer does, people will see themselves in their work. Some of them will be right. Some of them will be wrong. But I think that if a writer manages to create characters and relationships in which people can find themselves, maybe learn something, then it’s a job well done.
And maybe, just maybe, us writers can find a way to look at very hard situations – divorce, love, death, fear, betrayal – and show you that all of us, all the archetypes and all the possibilities are in all of them. That’s why the themes of stories have been the same since the time we first started writing. Then staging. Then filming.
So let me assure you, if you think you see yourself in my work, you do. That’s my goal. But, if you really think it’s about you? Then you’re too vain.