Dani Shapiro
June 7, 2010

On Betrayal (2)

When I wrote Black & White, I had many questions in mind, questions that I wanted to try to answer by exploring the world of the novel.  First and foremost among these was the subject of privacy.  Where does a writer (or an artist of any kind) draw the line?  Is it all right for us to write about our parents, but not our children?  Or our parents, but only after they’re dead?  Or children, but only when they’re small?  Our spouses, but only if it’s flattering?  Our friends, but only if they’re either disguised, or it’s pre-approved?  If we write fiction, are all bets off because it’s fiction, no matter how thinly-veiled?   A writer’s life is her laboratory.  Bits and pieces float up to the surface.  Wallpaper, for instance.  Or the smell of a stew simmering on a stove.  Or the way someone’s mouth curves around a particular word.  Or a caught bit of dialogue.  Or an old couple and the way they hold hands.  Who knows what it is that  sparks us, that creates Didion’s shimmer, of which I’ve written before?

I have always been mindful of the responsibility of being someone who publishes work in which others often show up as characters.  I never feel like I’m trolling for information, or am lying in wait for the next bit of inspiration to thwack me upside the head.  That isn’t how it works, at least not for me.  But I am aware that there is a certain distrust.  A sense, in others, that maybe I’m taking mental notes.  And maybe, in a way, I am.  After all, that’s one of the great advantages of being writer (and there are so many down sides; as I write this on tour, sandwiched in a middle seat on an airplane with a very large snoring man whose head is dangerously close to lolling on my shoulder…)  But I digress.  The upside is in the aliveness.  In the sense that around any corner, there is the possibility of something that feels exciting, real, true, worth exploring.  Something that goes ping.  That shimmers.

When that happens, what is a writer’s responsibility?  There is a fine line between worrying about betrayal–and self-censorship.  There is an equally fine line between hearing  that little voice perched on your shoulder (on all of our shoulders) who tell us that we can’t/shouldn’t/mustn’t — and knowing whether that voice is speaking for the right reasons–or the wrong ones.  In my experience, most writers who are concerned about hurting others in their work–don’t.  The ones who don’t even think about it–those are the dangerous ones, running around like child soldiers wielding great big  guns.  Deep down, we know.  We know why we’re doing what we’re doing?  Pride? Envy? Resentment? Take-no-prisoners selfishness?  Proving something–as in, I’ll show them?

All I’m saying is, if we pay close attention to our motivations, we know.  And what we know about ourselves will protect us–and those around us.