Yes, yes. I’ve insulted, harangued, humiliated and demeaned my friends and enemies alike. I’ve physically assaulted some of them. I took their money, liberated their belongings, invaded their homes, snorted their coke, and staged destructively wild parties on their property. I slept with their girlfriends, wives, husbands, fiances, daughters, and molested their children. But it’s all for the sake of my art! – Anonymous Artist.
(Personally, I haven’t gone that far. Yet.)
Granted that you cannot avoid breaking a few eggs when you make an omelette, how many eggs should you be allowed to break?
It depends on so many factors, I don’t know where to start. This is a question that applies to all artists, including writers, but it applies most to the least crazy of them all: Journalists.
You may argue on whether or not journalists are artists, or perhaps on whether they are the same breed of artists as fiction writers or poets, but you must agree that they have a lot of potential to bite the hand that feeds them. In the quest for the big story, they may have to throw their valuable sources under bus. Marisa Tomei plays a journalist who abandons her friendship with a source too soon in Ides of March.
Those of us who have interacted with double dealing journalists can relate to some of the elements of that and other movies. Weighing the consequences of their treachery is a part of the journalist’s game.
The treachery of other kinds of artists are less cerebral. A musician or a fiction writer might spend a lifetime not betraying anyone, at least not in a very calculated manner. If you have a person who is a source material, you can fictionalize him into something unrecognizable. So you would not be betraying actual confidences as a journalist might. A fiction writer does not play the zero-sum game of “write the story or keep a friend”.
But there are other kinds of betrayals. After all, every writer is an investigator of some sort. I can write about how a fist fight feels like because I have been in a few of them. Granted there are some safe places to have fist fights, boxing rings and martial arts gyms for example, where you can get pretty good simulations of actual street fights. Even then, you are bruising your knuckles on someone’s face. Your only consolation is that it is consensual.
And speaking of consensual, what kind of romantic relationships have you been itching to write? I have a few stories that might devastate some people when they recognize themselves in it. There are so many writers out there who, although they publish in a totally different genre, started writing out of a desire to rat on a relative who sexually molested them long ago, or something along those lines. And it is not only the victims. Predators have the same secret urge to spill the beans. And if you are neither victim nor predator, you might have dark secret fantasies of being one or the other. You see them reflected in fiction all the time. Although they may not hurt people who actually interacted with the author, a brutal rape scene might send an actual rape victim into a traumatic relapse after reading it. Some psychologists even urge warning label on books. But that is not going to stop writers from writing.
The best way to find out what people say in arguments is to get into arguments with people. That is why there are so many trolls on writing forums on the internet. What are people going to say when they are hurt? Well, hurt them and find out. Or pretend to be hurt at an innocuous comment and make drama, making the other guy the troll. The worst thing that can happen is that you are going to be banned from a gathering of strangers. It’s another relatively safe way to bruise your knuckles on somebody’s face.
Of course you will have to live with the consequences of all the fist fights you had in the parking lot, the one night stands, the sexual role playing, and the internet trolling (or trollee-ing), not to mention the exhaustive interviews of people who have lived through pain. Even if you do not write about them, they can come back and bite you, because of course you are hurting people in the process. So how much is too much?
If you have to kill somebody to write a realistic murder story, you are clearly pushing it. But short of that, how many eggs are you allowed to break for an omelette? The good news, for novelists anyway, is that you don’t have to break even one. The quality of your finished work of fiction is not dependent on the number of eggs you break. You don’t have to be a badass to write like one.
But then again, it is all a learning process. Like every bitter experience you suffered in your childhood, every abrasive comment you get on the internet teaches you to write better, if only because it offers a glimpse into the minds of people who do not think like you. Also, some people will hate you anyway no matter what you do. What is true for people in your immediate proximity is true for people you meet on the internet. They are haters. You cannot please them, so don’t try. Those eggs are already broken.
The bottom line is, you can break all the eggs you are willing to pay for. It is not your job to cry over them. Your job is to make an awesome omelette.