Sunday, September 20, 2009

Stealing Stories


Joan Fontaine reading.

You're at a social gathering. A woman across the room tells the story of her uncle who raised pigs in a small way. Just a few at a time. When he took the pig to the slaughterhouse," she advised us, "he drove them there in the backseat of his Mercedes. Said he wanted them to go out in style." After our skeptical pause, she added, "they were used cars, of course."

Now do you tell her you have to use this incident in a story. (I did this time). Do you feel guilty about it? I've used more than one of these sorts of tales in larger pieces.

Just the day before I heard an even better one. A husband picked up turtles from the roadside in Oxford, Mississippi and brought them home to his wife. Dozens, (well, he claimed hundreds), of them. Every day at noon, she came outside and handfed them peaches. Called them from out of their hiding places for a nice lunch.

Would you let these stories go by? Do you ever feel like you're stealing pieces of other people's lives? Is there a line you would draw?

17 comments:

Fleur Bradley said...

The good ones, I don't feel so bad about (the ones you had were pretty sweet).

It's the bad stories, the tragedies, where I have a harder time. If I hear something good I want to work into a story, I usually rework it so you can't tell anymore where it came from.

Charles Gramlich said...

That's a really interesting question. I've certainly used dialogue that I've overheard almost verbatim, but I don't know that I've used whole stories or scenes like these without altering them so much through my own experiences that they'd be unrecognizable. I've had people tell me stories before and tell me I'm free to use them in stories. I think they'd like to see it actually. I've got to think more about this.

the walking man said...

If the scenes described are the whole story i would have to offer attribution of the source but if they are small portions of a larger work, permission would be nice if attainable and if not, fair game either way.

pattinase (abbott) said...

You can't anticipate the reaction of people familiar with the story. I wrote a story almost entirely based on a real family, all of whom were gone. And a friend regarded certain disclosures as painful.

Richard Robinson said...

I'm worried about the turtles. Didn't they ever get returned to their natural habitat? Were they eaten? Did the turtle police, or perhaps the National Association for Turtle Freedom, come and rescue them?

note: do turtles really like peaches?

Frank Loose said...

Raymond Carver wrote a story about this very thing. His character drops in on his ex-wife who accuses him of coming around just to rip off something else from her life as fodder for a story. The name of the s.s. is Intimacy --- it's classic Carver.

Dorte H said...

I wouldn´t feel guilty if I recycled stories of the kind you mention. I would be far more cautious when it came to using stories or incidents which reveal a lot about a person´s character.

Ed Gorman said...

I use just about everything I hear if it's useful in some way. If it's an incident that would embarrass the person who told me I'll likely disguise it. I'm not out to hurt feelings. But sometimes something somebody said or did in real life is perfect for creating a fictional life. Fitzgerald once wrote that as he visited his dying father he knew he'd remember his feelings to use later in a story. That may be an extreme but I think most of us, high art or low, draw on our own experiences.

Rob Kitchin said...

I've not done it so far. The person I'm most likely to steal stories or dialogue from has made it clear that if I'm ever caught doing it she'll kill me and what's more I believe her (I know her stories). It's safer just to make stuff up.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I wondered about the peaches too but it seemed a story-worthy fruit so I'm going with it.
I have stolen my husband's whole life in bits and pieces so he expects it now. My family was much more prosaic.
I never heard the Fitzgerald thing before but in a way, it;s a way to process grief.

George said...

If Shakespeare could "borrow" plots and stories, so can anyone.

Margot Kinberg said...

That's a good question.. I would say I'd take the general idea, and then change them. I don't take things verbatim, but I do use places I've visted and composites of people I've seen.

Todd Mason said...

Nicholas Meyer on COVER TO COVER last Thursday (Pacifica Radio's book-interview strip): "In Hollywooed, there's a maxim: 'You can't make an omelet without stealing eggs.'"

I have to wonder why your "friend" thought the story transformed was somehow hurtful.

pattinase (abbott) said...

She felt their story was so painful that writing about it at all was a betrayal. I only knew the family slightly-so to me it wasn't.

Paul Brazill said...

It's all up for grabs!

Dana King said...

I would, and have. I'd draw the line at something that could be hurtful to the source, even if only they would recognize it. Id' also take pains to dress it up so it wasn't too obvious a life, though I did take a story from a friend once pretty much word for word. (I tol d him first I wanted it, and he said that's why he told it to me.)

pattinase (abbott) said...

Yes, some people don't mind and even like it.