Is Everything Copy?
I watched the excellent HBO documentary “everything is copy” that portrays the life and work of Nora Ephron.
Nora maintained that “everything is copy,” meaning that anything and everything that happens to you is fair game to write about. Life is a supermarket of raw material for the author. For instance, in Nora’s case, a messy divorce: Nora’s ‘heartburn’ is the perfect revenge novel. How sweet her payback must have been, getting back at an erring husband like that. Not only writing a best seller but getting a movie adaptation as well, with Meryl streep and Jack Nicholson. I remember being totally jealous after a bad breakup, and fantasizing of writing my own payback novel.
However, after watching the documentary I realized the price that was paid by her family, her ex and her children.
Carrie Fisher, who never shied from exposing her own weaknesses and trials on paper, found out the hard way that maybe not ‘everything is copy’. In her 2016 memoir ‘The Princess Diarist’, Carrie told of the affair she had with Harrison Ford while they were filming the first Star Wars movie. He, by the way, was married at the time. Even though more than 40 years have elapsed, and Harrison Ford is married to a different woman now, he was deeply hurt. Carrie Fisher found herself apologizing profusely for her indiscretion.
One can, and should use sufferings, pains and tribulations in one’s writing. There is nothing very innovative in that, but the moral and ethical problems arise when we include other people’s experiences in our books.
Where do we draw the line?
Cassandra Austen, Jane Austen’s sister, famously burnt and censured (by cutting out with scissors ‘offending’ paragraphs), many of her sister’s letters. Having lived a far longer life than Jane, Cassandra witnessed firsthand the rising popularity and fame of her sister. She watched the avid interest in her sister’s personal life. Cassandra mercilessly destroyed anything and everything she thought might shed too much light, or throw the wrong light on her beloved, private sister. A stark contrast to our own Instagram Age Sharing wasn’t an option. For Cassandra Austen – Nothing was copy.
A famous example from our own times is that of Elena Ferrante who chooses to remain anonymous. She is clearly an Italian, probably from Napoli. But are the people she portrays real? Are Lila and Elena real? Maybe she chooses to remain incognito so that she will have greater freedom to do as Nora ephron did. Maybe for Ferrante everything is copy but she is the only one who knows what is true and what is false. What really happened and what is merely creative writing.
It remains for each of us writers to decide what is or isn’t copy. What may cause harm to our loved ones and what will not. Maybe that’s why so many writers choose to write under a pen name – for that greater freedom that comes with anonymity.