“Everything is copy” — Nora Ephron
We writers soak up the world around us faster than a sheet of Bounty soaks up colored liquid in the commercials we’re all so familiar with. Even if we’re not aware of it, we’re mentally jotting down the conversation where a friend tells us about her failing marriage, or the one between two strangers sitting next to us in the coffee shop who are a million times more interesting than the person we’re actually with. I know I do, and it’s so subliminal that I’m hardly even aware of it until days later when I’m in the shower and a character or even a story comes to life.
We’re voyeurs, we writers, always assuming — rightly or not — that other people are more fascinating than we are. And they may well be, simply because they are just that — other; and inhabiting their minds and bodies allows us to momentarily leave our own ceaseless mental chatter behind and begin a fascinating journey without ever leaving the couch.
But what happens when that rich fodder — a/k/a your friends — is in the audience opening night as your play, the one about a couple whose marriage is falling apart, is having its premiere? What happens when the female half of the couple sees herself being portrayed as harping and controlling and the male half watches himself being an emotional cripple in front of fifty people? Is it worth it?
I have firsthand experience with this dilemma — or rather, I almost did. About five years ago a former (somewhat emotionally unstable) boss was apprehended by the FBI following a bizarre coincidence which involved political pamphlets he authored and a bomb exploding in New York’s Time Square. The story was picked up by some news outlets, but for me it was a personal one, involving a job I loathed at a company in which I was the proverbial square peg and the struggles I was having within myself to find my voice. The boss and the bomb were mere catalysts for that journey.
When The Laughing Cow, the play that sprang forth from that, was in production and I was publicizing the hell out of it on every platform I had within my reach, I worried: my former boss and I were Facebook friends. What would he think of my borrowing his story and building a play around it? To make matters worse, he was — is — a lawyer and all too familiar with issues around intellectual property. I imagined facing off with him at intermission, or getting a scathing email following his having read a synopsis of the play in a local publication.
In the end, nothing happened and I was probably more worried than I needed to be. The truth is, my relationship with my former boss fell into the acquaintance category. What happens when a close friend sees her/himself in your work? Is that worth it?
I have a play I’m itching to write that is directly inspired by a friend’s struggles with a wayward teenage son and a marriage that, not surprisingly in its twenty-something years, has had its share of turbulence. The story burst forth on its own, with a character not unlike my friend in a starring role. The outline wrote itself, now I just need to fill in the words (because, as we know, that’s so easy). But once again, I conjure up images of her sitting in the audience during the New York premiere (she lives in New York) and a sickly feeling gripping her innards when she sees a fun house image of herself on stage. What would it mean to our friendship if I were to usurp her life in that way?
Obviously there are ways to embellish the truth and put fat on fact so that its bones are unrecognizable. But people are a lot smarter than we often give them credit for and friends of writers are known to be extremely smart –which is why we keep them around; in some ways they know we look to them for inspiration and maybe even take a little pleasure in it. Provided the portrayal contains a few flattering qualities.
If not, then maybe a conversation is in order. I have no clue what the answer is. I only know that in my experience real life is always much more interesting than anything I can conjure up; and other peoples’ real lives are endlessly fascinating. How to negotiate the delicate balance between the two is probably just another burden we artists bear as we embark on our journeys and make our way in the world.