Writing About Other People
This week’s Therapy Tape is a response of sorts to the essay “Cat Person” And Me by Alexis Nowicki, which you can read here, because I think it raises some really important, fundamental questions about the nature and the purpose of creative writing.
For those who haven’t read it and don’t have the time to read both it and this right now, here’s a quick rundown – Nowicki talks about her experience of having her life fictionalised by a stranger in the most popular viral short story of all time. The writer Kristen Roupenian wrote the story Cat Person in 2017, about a toxic relationship between a college sophomore and an older man. The character of the older man was an exact facsimile of an ex of Nowicki’s, while the character of the protagonist seemed to share key details of her own life. Nowicki eventually contacted Roupenian about it to find that she had later got to know Nowicki’s ex, Charles, and wrote a story about him based on what she had learned about his previous relationship. Most tragically, Nowicki never considered her relationship to be toxic or abusive and Charles himself had since died, leaving her to feel like she was the sole custodian of the memory of the person she knew, while Roupenian’s fictionalised reimagining of him had come to define who he would be remembered as.
All this poses some really important questions about what writing is, and what it is for. In Tape 19, I talked about Brian Eno’s proposed purposes for art, one of which was as a sort of empathy lab, encouraging us to build our ability to imagine what the world looks like from a perspective different to our own. I think this is a key element of writing and telling stories – you’re getting a reader to literally inhabit the world of someone different to them, whether that’s your own story, or the story of your invented character. Writing, therefore, is always going to be in some way about rearranging the raw material of life, whether that’s your own or other people’s, in order to present a world-view that will make your reader encounter a new thought, a new feeling.
This is obviously particularly true in my own corner of the world of art and storytelling, the world of comedy – 90% of stand-up comedy involves a comedian telling their own story, getting the audience to look at the world through their eyes and laugh at how silly it looks. But choosing to write comes with a degree of personal responsibility and I think writers far too often see themselves as having the right to curate and rearrange and preserve the stories of those around them, over and above the right of those people to be the custodians and tellers of their own stories.
I’m a writer and I get it – sometimes you encounter a story in real life and it lights a fire under you and ignites your imagination and something of your own emerges from it. Sometimes the excitement of that feeling, that you’ve woven your own, imagined story out of the spark of something real, can obliterate the knowledge that the story you’re writing started out as somebody else’s lived experience. Or, on the other hand, sometimes you find yourself writing about yourself in such a way that the story you’re telling intersects with somebody else’s – you realise you can’t tell this particular story without revealing information about somebody else you know, who possibly never wanted to have their story told in a public forum. I’ve always found David Sedaris’s approach really commendable – he writes about his family an awful lot, always with a great deal of warmth, but often with a healthy dose of mocking judgement too. But Sedaris himself never escapes that same level of judgement – his writing is always fed by the awareness that he’s a very petty, ridiculous, judgemental person, which makes the material about his family feel honest and well-observed rather than cruel or exploitative. Sedaris always shows his stories to his family first, and because they’re familiar with the world and tone of his writing, 9 times out of 10, they’re fine with how he writes about them, but if they ever come back saying they’re not happy with how he’s written a particular story, he doesn’t question it, he simply doesn’t publish it. He recognises that their right to protect that particular part of their life is more important than his right to tell it.
While I think Nowicki is a victim of the fallout from Cat Person, I really feel for Roupenian – she wrote the story as part of her graduate programme and pitched it to the New Yorker as a punt, and never thought it would achieve the breakout success it did. She wrote an original story about toxic, coercive relationships inspired by the spark of a real relationship she heard about that fired her imagination, and probably never considered that the person she based it on would ever read it. But I totally agree with her own admission that she should have gone back and removed the autobiographical details that tied the fictional protagonist of her story to the real person she was based on.
A lot of the time, readers don’t need true-life, autobiographical detail. They just want to feel something. Tom Waits has a wonderful answer when people ask him what his songs are about – “It’s like if you’re in the movie theatre watching a really bad movie, and someone leans over to you and whispers “You know, this is based on a true story.” Does it really improve the film?” Us writers like to flatter ourselves that what our readers want to see is an exact reproduction of life as we saw it, but all they really want is to be made to feel something that reflects their lived experience and makes them think in a new way. Sometimes the true-life details that helped us as writers to find our way into a story can be crucial in helping us figure out what it is we’re trying to say or imagine, but utterly redundant in the finished thing. When I made my show Joz Norris Is Dead. Long Live Mr Fruit Salad. in 2019, it initially included several personal anecdotal moments where I explained exactly what had happened in the two years that led to me making that show, and why I had ended up hiding my face onstage, and how the various nonsensical elements of the show actually reflected what had been going on in my life. I thought of it like a sort of “Aha!” moment, where suddenly everything would fit together and the audience would understand my story, like an intricate magic trick. The wonderful comedian Stu Goldsmith saw a preview of it and told me “You can cut all that. You have this really meaningful, beautiful show that says an awful lot, and maybe all that stuff that happened in your life was the skeleton you needed to build the show around, but you’ve built the show now, so maybe you can take that skeleton away and see if it still stands up. I think it will.” He was right. I think as writers we need to exercise that judgement all the time, not just for the betterment of the stories we tell, but for the protection of the people whose stories we borrow and pilfer from, whether they’re people we care about or total strangers.
What do you guys think? Does a writer have the right to lift things, magpie-like, from the stuff of life, in order to tell a story that reflects the real world? Or do they have a responsibility to disguise and distort the things they borrow in order to preserve the sanctity of the inner worlds of the people they’re inspired by? Always love hearing your thoughts.
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – Andrew Lawrence got cancelled.
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – John-Luke Roberts’ show at the Soho Theatre, specifically a bit about crows.
Book Of The Week – Just finished Call Me By Your Name. Would be interested to hear from people who love it, or people who love the film, which I’ve not seen but I understand is very popular. I sort of felt like not much happened or changed? Is that the point? Didn’t love it.
Album Of The Week – Been listening to The Virgin Suicides by Air. Always thought Air were a bit wacky because of that “Sexy Boy” song, but this is pretty depressing, as you’d expect from the soundtrack to a film about teen suicide. Kind of prefer their “Sexy Boy”-esque stuff, if I’m honest, but this is pretty good mood music.
Film Of The Week – Another Round is a new film by Thomas Vinterberg about a group of academics who launch a study to find out what happens when they try to maintain the alcohol level in their blood at 0.05% above average, and all become alcoholics. Mads Mikkelsen is incredible in it.
That’s all for this week! There won’t be a Therapy Tape next week as I’m away visiting family and then friends, and desperately trying to get enough work done in between, so I’ll be back in a fortnight with more rambles. Take care of yourselves in the meantime! All the best,
PS Here’s a picture of Primrose Hill all flooded.