I am not qualified- or knowledgeable enough to truly comment on the recent “Bad Art Friend” controversy written about in the New York Times involving Dawn Dorland and Sonya Larson. (Sonya Larson was in the same MFA program I was in, Warren Wilson, and one semester we even had the same advisor. We had also corresponded about a panel discussion at an alumni conference on questions of representation and non-white writers.) But I can comment on the issues that are raised, such as about using materials for details from another’s life.
Writers are observers; we are always taking in the events and circumstances around us, however consciously or unconsciously. This is inevitable. I believe also that writers should be able to write about characters from backgrounds different from their own. This needs to be done respectfully and complexly, of course. But fiction is fiction because it is not autobiographical. For many of us, our characters are composites with elements of people we have encountered as well as figments of our imagination.
However, there are always the issues of a) direct quotation, a.k.a. plagiarism, of what somebody else has written are said and b) good boundaries and taste. The former is easier to criticize and go after; the latter is something much harder to teach and for many people to learn. In this era of social media, people very frequently have bad boundaries and there has been a decline in empathy and emotional intelligence that has been quantitatively measured by social science researchers over the decades.
Here is one good solution–imagination. A writer who is grounded in craft and who understands how to write dialogue can come up with good fiction that draws on one’s experiences and knowledge filtered through technique. I liken it to method acting, where an actor or actress brings their emotional memory to the character they are playing. You might use the feelings from a bad breakup to play Ophelia or frustrations with your man to play Maggie in “A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” but you are ultimately always playing Ophelia or Maggie, not yourself. If writers think about the audiences they are writing to, and not just about expressing their own feelings, this might make them more conscientious and aware of how their work will be perceived. Telling a good story is a skill that is underrated in literary fiction, in my opinion.
One of the common phenomena in writing workshops is the prevalence of autofiction and writing about oneself. This is one easy way to circumvent the issue of writing about others. It reminds me of a saying that goes something like, “The good thing about egoists is that they never gossip about others!”
Social media is something I find frightening and disturbing. People use it as a means to publicly humiliate others. There are numerous examples I could cite, such as one student haranguing another student for having posted questions three times on their graduate program’s Facebook website, telling them to ask the director of the program instead.
Writing programs can often have cliques, different factions, and (sorry to say) emotionally unstable people who will gossip behind people’s back and do hurtful things. There are problems with both racism/racial insensitivity and people playing the race card unnecessarily and inappropriately. Many writers are extremely thin-skinned, and some can be jealous. Being a writer is an isolating thing, so when writers get together, they want to feel connected to others, and sometimes this ends up in creating in-groups and therefore ostracism. There is the common stressor of schoolwork and an advisor’s expectations. Out in the real world, this translates into deadlines, editorial decisions, and dealing with notorious characters.
All of this can make a writer feel like one should lock oneself in a room and write, not deal with others at all. Some writers choose to do this, and it is easy to see why.
At its core, the joy of being a writer is about being able to translate what one hears, thinks, sees, imagines in one’s head into words. It is a solitary process, but it does not have to be lonely. Not everything is a Dorland versus Larson. Supportive writers will bolster you, give you constructive criticism about your craft, encourage you when your energy is flagging, and congratulate you when you have published something or have completed a work. It can take little effort to find these people, but they are out there.