For as long as I can remember, I have been observing people. Not in a creepy, stalker-ish way, or at least not according to the local authorities. But as a watchful, introverted child attempting to make sense of the world, and later, as a watchful, introverted adult, still attempting to make sense of the world and my place in it.
People are fascinating. How they can say one thing and do another. How they are capable of great feats but falter at the smallest tasks. How they can smile at you and promise the world, right before crushing you under their heels.
I’ve paid attention. I like to think I’ve paid attention well enough to tell their stories. So that when a character pops into my head, my subconscious can riffle through its databank and match behaviors I’ve observed with the imaginary person sitting before me.
Sometimes we writers sit around over a few adult beverages and talk about who “owns” a story. The author? The imaginary characters? Any “real” person who might have inspired the tale? I used to think there was a certain responsibility involved in storytelling. That as someone who seeks to string words together in the right order, I had a kind of obligation to tell the stories of people who could not do it for themselves.
I don’t know if that’s so true anymore, now that I’m older. It sounds awfully snobby, that “obligation” part. That “assuming” part. I just like to tell stories that help me understand what we silly humans do, and maybe stories that help me connect with other people.
So let me tell you one. Years ago, I left an emotionally abusive relationship and rented a room in a huge apartment I shared with three other people. I did not know them well—I hadn’t even met one of them before I signed the lease—but after what I’d been through, they became a kind of family for me. We quickly had each other’s backs. A few months after I moved in, a hurricane swept through Boston, leaving us one of the few houses in our neighborhood with power. Our available horizontal surfaces filled with stranded friends and loved ones, including a male housemate’s sister. She was (presumably still is; we lost touch) smart and funny, and I took to her as easily as I had to her brother. Both siblings are gay; both had been rejected by their father when they came out. I mean completely, utterly, you-are-dead-to-me rejected. That chilled me to the core. One of my own ancestors had rejected my family when my parents left Judaism, so I felt a bit of that pain. I could never imagine my loving, open-minded parents doing such a thing to us. The brother used humor as a coping mechanism. He also worked at a nonprofit agency helping at-risk kids; he’s now a lawyer. The sister ran away from home and joined the Hare Krishna; in fact, when we met, she’d just parted ways with them and hoped to stay with us long enough to figure out what came next. They were lucky. One woman I knew, a former babysitter, was not so lucky. I learned years later that she killed herself after her parents turned her away.
Does that mean I “get” to tell these peoples’ stories? I have no idea what it’s personally like to be in the thoughts and bodies of the people involved. But I knew them. I have deep compassion for them. I’d rather no one else went through these horrible circumstances. Ever.
What do you think? Can experiences be transferred through story? If something moves us, can we write about it? Should we? Or is it not ours to tell?