“Handle Me with Care”

Where do writers get their ideas? That’s perhaps the most important question about writing that has no single right answer. Each writer is an individual who has individual ideas that capture the writer’s fancy. It’s less the uniqueness of an idea than the way it’s expressed and packaged that gives each of us our writing approach and style.

We sometimes seek inspiration from those around us. This is a fruitful source, as long as we remember that the Hippocratic Oath adjuration to “first do no harm” applies to writers as well as doctors. I heard on the radio last week that a newly-released movie about life in the Deep South fifty years ago has led to a blowup between a writer and a person who claims that the writer, in essence, committed theft in using the real-life person as a character without permission. Without making a judgment on this case, it’s a reminder that we have the power to destroy a good name or reputation by careless words or characterizations.

I teach history for a living. Part of what I do is to discuss with my students the canons of historical research and writing and the historian’s obligation to do justice to the dead. In graduate school, I suffered several professorial bludgeonings until I display an adequate grasp of this key point. One who seeks to live by the credo of doing justice to others may want to consider exercising caution in harvesting grist for their writer’s mill.

My wife and I recently spent ten days in Russia, cruising the waterways from Moscow to St. Petersburg. I crammed a notebook full of ideas about characters to populate the landscapes we saw. One thing we noticed in talking with Russians is the apprehensiveness many of them show about discussing their nation’s past. Faulkner was right: their past isn’t even past. It may not be for generations to come. I assume that all of us who love the craft of writing share a commitment to the truth, even expressed in fictional or poetic forms. I’m wrestling with the question of how to write about consequential things and tell the truth without doing injustice to my characters. I have no easy answers; I doubt anyone does.

A popular song from some years ago had the frequently-repeated line, “Handle me with care.” Nonfiction writers already know the importance of doing this. We who write fiction and poetry need to keep it in mind as well.

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