Writing What You’ve Been Told

Over the years, a lot of people have decided to confide in me. For reasons I don’t fully understand, I often hear about childhood traumas, marital problems, people’s alcohol or drug usage, their financial troubles, and their sex lives.

These discussions aren’t just between me and my close friends. I’ve had them with colleagues at work over lunch. Casual acquaintances in classes have used group projects as an opportunity to tell me their darkest secrets. Even complete strangers in checkout lines have unburdened themselves to me.

I talked about this with a writer I know, and she’s had similar experiences. Her theory is that something about us seems supportive, non-judgmental, and a bit motherly. As in, we are good listeners and open-minded, which makes people feel comfortable talking to us. (How one judges that in a 30-second conversation at the grocery store is a topic for another time.)

Those are good traits for writers to have, in my opinion. I think writers need to approach life and the world around us with curiosity. If we can be open-minded and good listeners, we’ll learn more about other people and their reasons for their actions. That should help us craft more believable characters.

And yet, I find myself reluctant to draw on these conversations as material for my writing. And I’m not completely sure why.

Yes, when a close friend shares something with me in confidence, it should remain private. But do I have the same expectation of privacy with a former classmate? Or a stranger waiting to buy groceries?

An even fuzzier line for me is the material gleaned from people at work. Our shared meals and work experiences suggest a level of intimacy. But how much privacy should a person expect from these relationships?

After all, I’ve seen a number of people learn something about a coworker over lunch and then exploit that information to undermine the colleague and help their own careers. That strikes me as conniving and backstabbing. But all’s fair in love and career advancement, right?

Perhaps that’s why I struggle with whether using these tales is acceptable or not. Certainly, drawing on these stories while changing the details so that they no longer represent the person who shared them is an option. But would I be transgressing social mores if I did?

I don’t want to be the backstabbing person who uses others to get ahead. But as a writer, my job is to examine human behavior in all its forms and ask questions about why we do the things we do.

Fellow writers, are you someone who hears a lot of confidential information like this? Do you use it in your writing? If so, how do you navigate these questions? I’d like to know.

(Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash)

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