I have this friend. Let’s call him…Dave. He’s the literary equivalent of panning a river in hip waders and discovering a big fat chunk of gold. He’s intelligent (something of a Martian philosopher, I like to think)–talented, eccentric, and decadently debaucherous. He effortlessly mixes high-minded discourse with raffish juvenilia, and has no qualms about public nudity after heroic feats of drinking. As Melville once wrote, Dave “stands ready in a sensible way to play the fool.”
Between those blurry nights and lost weekends, I have accumulated a collection of stories so vast I could fill a Proustian cycle of novels based on his exploits. Sounds great, right? A writer should be so lucky as to have such ready-made inspiration plopped in his or her lap. Not wanting to squander such an opportunity, I heedlessly carved a few sides from Dave’s juicy butterball and created the character Satch for my novel, The Great Peace. Good job, I thought. Now rest up and await a call from the Pulitzer committee.
It wasn’t until the manuscript began making its rounds that I realized the ethical pickle I was in. I hadn’t bothered to notice that Dave, like myself, is a young professional working in a competitive industry. His boss and co-workers probably wouldn’t appreciate his after-hours antics as much as I do. Squares, I figured. They probably wouldn’t dig his ability to wake up nude in unfamiliar places either. Prudes, I concluded.
But what about Dave? Did I ever consider what he might think about my Rabelaisian depiction of him? I never asked, after all. Slowly I began picturing myself being excoriated in the court of personal opinion, with Dave and Satch sitting side-by-side at the plaintiff’s table.
“Tsk tsk, young author, how dare you!” the judge would say.
“I thought you were cool, man,” Dave and/or Satch would rejoin.
Perhaps I would even land in a real courtroom, hopelessly making a case for my literary flights of fancy, the most indefensible of defenses.
“To the slammer you go, young scribe!” says the judge, sentencing me to a lifetime of shame.
People do have a right to be left alone and although the intricacies of defamation are beyond the scope of my little musings here, the thought sent chills through my manuscript.
That got me thinking. Does our friendship give me the right to take small pieces of Dave’s personality and exaggerate them to fit whatever situation my book requires? Moreover, does that license allow me to broadcast it publicly, damn the rest? As a writer, it’s easy to hide behind the curtain of ART, write large, when in reality I’m really just versifying the equivalent of incriminating Facebook photos.
But wait, I thought, who wouldn’t want to be memorialized in the pages of a novel? The answer, I suppose, may lie in a familiar place.
How many of you have heard this old chestnut: write what you know. All of you? Precisely. It’s an expression so ubiquitous I feel like it should have some Latin origin chiseled in ancient stone tablets. If I may be allowed to beat that tired drum once more, I would argue that the statement is more or less correct. Characters are man-shaped balloons (or lady-shaped balloons, or Dave-shaped balloons) waiting to be inflated. They can’t be wooden or one-dimensional; they must embody the many facets of our nature and become the floating exclamation point to whatever it is we’re trying to say.
“Guilty!” cries the cranky old judge.
“Whatever,” says Dave and/or Satch.
That being said, “write what you know” has obvious limitations. What if your friends, family, or neighbors are, well, boring? To paraphrase Kerouac, what if they always yawn or always say a commonplace thing? In my opinion, there’s little benefit to the author or reader if proximity trumps imagination. Literature is supposed to create a diversion from the ordinary, enliven it, take it apart, examine its guts. Even in our hyper-realist age, where the minutiae of our daily lives can be instantly reported and commented on, the need to transcend the mundane still matters.
“The kid has a point,” the judge opines.
It was under this fattening cloud of doubt that I nervously awaited Dave’s response upon sending him the manuscript.
“Satch is my favorite character!” he gushed.
I wonder why, I thought with a grin.
Then, in a delightful turn of art imitating life imitating art, Dave texted me a not-safe-for-work photo depicting the following caption, “Too many Heinekens last night, woke up with no pants on. I totally pulled a Satch.” To which I gently reminded him: Satch is a fictional character. Any resemblance to actual persons is purely coincidental.
Attorney, author, and musician Ryan George Kittleman founded Colony Pictura in 2010. His goal was to create a law firm ‘by artists, for artists’ and help provide an open and cooperative link between the legal world and the arts and entertainment communities. Since its founding, Colony Pictura has provided affordable, artist-friendly legal services to numerous filmmakers, writers, designers, artists, musicians, startup companies, and other creative minds.
Ryan has been a musician and songwriter for more than 15 years, playing in bands on both coasts and releasing solo albums under the names The Three Potato 4 and Spent Waves. His 2009 release, Album Savant, received international acclaim and was called “adventurous and visionary home-recorded pop” by Best Kept Secret.
As an author, Ryan’s first novel, The Great Peace, will be published nationwide by Exploding Books on May 1, 2012.
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To follow Ryan’s musings on his blog, click HERE.