This week, Twitter’s been a-flutter about this Slate article, where a woman realized she’s in a not-very-flattering short story published by the New Yorker. Alexis Nowicki details the facts and feelings of when people she knew texted her to say, “Is this you? Is this your boyfriend?” Read the whole article; there are nuances in there that can’t be captured in a headline or a few tweets.
It’s a running joke in the writing community: “Don’t piss me off, or you’ll wind up in my next novel.” It’s also a truism. Pissed or not, bits and pieces of people we know (and even people we’ve only heard about, as in the Nowicki case) show up in our work.
And they have to! We can’t make nothing from nothing. We need to incorporate little pieces of real life into our stories to make them feel real, even if they are outlandish fiction.
I don’t know about other writers, but I have very little control over what my subconscious throws up. The Girls in the Basement can take a very nice woman with a few quirks, and twist her around to an evil villainess with plans to take over the world. “The quirks make her human and relatable, not pure evil,” my editing mind reasons.
It’s got to feel awkward for the person who is reading a work by a friend, and stumbles upon their own doppleganger. It may even cause lasting discomfort that crosses the border into harm.
“Am I really like that?”
“No, it’s just fiction.”
“But I twiddle my hair just like that, and sometimes eat a sundae instead of lunch. But not every day! Not like that!”
“Yeah, no, but . . . .”
“And I certainly don’t program robots to sabotage people’s mental health! I teach Roombas to clean more efficiently! That’s all I do!”
“It’s fiction . . . .” The writer has no excuses except that she’s a writer, and it seemed like a hilarious idea at the time.
It’s been part of the writing game forever. I read somewhere (I think in one of Jane Austen’s biographies) that Austen would take the details and motivations of a person, then flip their gender, and allow that to change the details radically enough that people didn’t recognize themselves (maybe). It also helped that she wrote anonymously in her lifetime, and she wrote characters that many people can recognize in their own lives (even in the 21st century! I know a Mr. Collins, even though he’s a boring English teacher, not a churchman).Continue reading