Friendship, Fiction, and Memoir: Trust and Betrayal in Writing from One's Own Life

I once attended a writing conference for aspiring authors of books for children, at which one speaker enraged the audience by making the pronouncement that, in his view, parents were disqualified to be authors of children's fiction. His reason: parents have to protect themselves from the reality of their children's pain and so wouldn't be able to write about childhood traumas with sufficient awareness and honesty. To this the audience, largely composed of mothers, shot back that parents are especially qualified to write for children, for precisely the opposite reason: they live with children in a relationship of great intimacy and so know children in a way that non-parents 1 do not. But, assuming, as I am inclined to do (as myself a writer of books for children who is also a parent), that the parents are correct here, or at least correct in asserting that they have a distinctive avenue of access to children on which they can draw to enrich the writing of their books, what ethical problems, if any, arise? If children do indeed provide their author-parents with "material," is this material the parents are entitled to use? If the children grow up themselves to be authors some day, will they be able to draw on their own childhoods -- and their relationships with parents and siblings -- to craft their own novels, or memoirs? (Flannery O'Connor is quoted as saying that no author need ever be at a loss for subject matter to write about: "All you need is a childhood.") Can friends write about friends, while still remaining friends and being true to the expectations and obligations of friendship? In this essay I want to highlight -- and then partially seek to dissolve, or resolve -- the particular tensions that arise between the obligations of friendship (or family relationships) and the necessity for an author (of either fiction or memoirs) to draw on her own life -- that is to say, her own relationships with friends and family -- in her work..
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