Ownership of Experience
by Salvatore Pane
Last weekend I went to the American Serbian Club. It’s a bar in Pittsburgh that caters to the Serbian elderly complete with traditional Serbian music, foods and supple Serbian granddaughters. I drank. I danced. I potentially got engaged to a young beauty. The next day, I sobered up and decided that the ASC DEMANDED to be written about.
But who can claim ownership over such experiences? I jokingly messaged another friend of mine who attended the ASC trip and told her she could not write about it because I already had 900 words (which I did). Obviously, this was meant in jest. But now, a few days later, I’m wondering if there’s any validity in that statement. If we, as writers, can ever truly claim to represent a location, an experience, a feeling.
One of the reasons why this is so interesting to me is because I’m the type of writer who can’t imagine faces. I can do setting and internalization and dialogue, but I can never truly picture my characters if what you mean by that is actually generating entirely new humans that don’t already exist. I’m a big believer in the amalgam, of taking one real life person and jamming them into another and seeing what happens because of the inherent tension. Also, I can’t picture clothes. That’s why I’m so thankful Facebook exists, because now if I need an outfit for a trendy, thirty-something dude, I can just go onto Facebook, look up one of my friends who matches the description and get to work.
Is this creepy? Fair? Why, as a writer, do I think we are allowed to do this, that we deserve this even? In my work, if I fictionalize scenarios or characters or settings even a little, I feel as though I now own them, that I can rightfuly claim ownership. Is that outright insane? How do non-writers feel about this? And what about nonfiction? A few weeks back, Amy Whipple was telling me about the ethics involved in interviews. I couldn’t even wrap my mind around such a scenario: the idea that a writer has to consider the feelings and privacy of their subjects. Various ex-girlfriends have liked the idea that certain things they said or did would appear in my work. They figured that since people couldn’t 100% attribute those elements to them, it made it ok and even somewhat desirable. But does that really make it justifiable or should I feel guilty when I stick a close friend into a story? I never have before and always fell into the Richard Yates camp. When asked about which of his characters he really disliked, he said none of them. He told the interviewer that in some small, meaningful way they were all him, pieces of his psyche at work. That’s both a very complex and reductive way of looking at what characters and experiences writers are entitled to.