Whose Story Is It? by Trudy Hale

The Twitter world ‘blew-up’ with writers weighing in on the “Bad Art Friend” article in the New York Times in early October (NY Times link below).

I had sympathized with the kidney donor whose life and letter had been “borrowed” and “stolen” by the short-story writer. The organ donor writer seemed to be the underdog. I was thinking how I would have felt, if a fellow writer friend, had taken my experience and wrote a story that was published and hailed by the literary community. It was an emotional and ethical kind of thing for me—the two writers had been friends and part of the Grub Street writing community in Boston.

In brief, Larsen wrote a short story using Dorland’s Facebook postings about donating her kidney to a stranger.

I asked a memoirist, Leslie Middleton, of Charlottesville, Virginia and Lamar Hawkins, a novelist in Topanga Canyon,California to weigh in on the controversy.

Leslie Middleton reflects:

“Reading the various accounts of the controversy—and now legal actions—between Dorland and Larsen, I feel both parties have and are behaving badly. At the heart of this story and broken relationships is an unwillingness to communicate. Inviting someone to be part of a private Facebook group, as Dorland did with Larsen, implies a closeness, an intimacy, that was at best unevenly experienced between Dorland and Larsen. What might have happened if Dorland had emailed the others in the writing group or picked up the phone and told them she was planning to donate a kidney and how she wanted and needed support?

At the same time, Larsen seems to have rejected the implied invitation for support right from the start and lurked in the shadows that Facebook offers, not responding, not commenting, but noting all that Dorland shared, harvesting the story for her own creative project and not coming clean about her intentions when challenged by Dorland.  And there is the pesky reality that Larsen lifted Dorland’s actual words virtually whole cloth for use in her short story.

The memoirist works from a different premise, I believe, than a fiction writer, even one like Dorland, who was working on a novel based on her own life. The memoirist assumes that only she can write this story because it is the story of her life as she remembers and understands it. The conflict about “who owns the story” (and even, “what is the story?” emerges when the memoirist’s memories are different from those of her supporting cast of characters.)

The Dorland-Larsen conflict seems to be about who gets to tell a fictionalized story based on aspects of one woman’s experiences.  Another way of trying to understand if and how the Dorland-Larsen controversy might inform me as a memoirist, I have to ask myself, what would be a comparable situation for me as a writer? My current memoir-in-progress is set in the 1970’s when I worked as one of the only women on offshore fishing boats in my twenties. How would I feel if someone I considered part of my writing circle—and who knew that I was writing this memoir with these essential ingredients—used my real-life story as the basis for a novel or short story?

This is not exactly analogous, but close to what transpired between Dorland and Larsen. I think I would immediately feel betrayed, undermined, and used—much as Dorland seems to feel. But I would have to examine carefully why exactly I am feeling this way? I imagine part of my reaction stems from feeling ownership of my own life story: I would also, like Dorland, feel that I would have wanted the other writer to check in with me about how she plans to use (or is using) my story in her own creative work.  And yet, I do understand that, for writers of fiction especially, the world and their own and others’ lives are the palette from which they can and must construct their stories.”

Two large robots boxing
Do What Yo Mama Said by raymondclarkeimages. CC license.

Novelist and actor, Lamar Hawkins (Lara Parker), reflects:

“I have brought up this intriguing question in several social conversations with family members and other writers. There were passionate responses on both sides, many unyielding. I soon realized that those who were working writers, or artists, fell on the side of the writer of the short story, and those who thought, or talked, about writing, wanted to write a book or a screenplay someday, fell on the side of the kidney donor.

The short story writer may have gone a bit too far in not changing the wording of the letter. But she was understandable in saying that it was so “perfect.” What she meant was that the letter so perfectly revealed the personality of the organ donor, her need for attention and admiration, that it was hard for the short story writer to change it. She had found the right words, even though they belonged to someone else.

As soon as you become a working artist you begin to see the world differently. Creating is not what you thought it would be; it is not about inspiration, the “magical” imagination, summoning the muse. It is an activity of craft. The attention is riveted on language, forming sentences and paragraphs, searching for the original word or phrase, even difficulties with grammar, just the hard work of slogging the page. The idea doesn’t make the writing fine, it is only the vehicle that motors you along. And once you are involved in the work, deeply imbedded in this creative activity, an amazing thing begins to happen. Your brain becomes a magnet and a sponge. Everything around you, every overheard remark, every physical detail, every memory from your childhood, every book you have read, every newspaper article, all become serendipitous, as they begin to serve your story. Ideas come from everywhere, they feel inevitable and necessary, and many were expressed by someone else.

In graduate school on criticism I was introduced to a radical concept: In a work of art the content resides in the form, not the subject. The story of someone giving away a kidney, although arresting, is not a work of art.

The donor wrote a blog to share with her fellow writers about giving away her kidney. It was information, not art. The short story writer didn’t tell the story of someone who gave away a kidney. She told the story of someone who gave away a kidney for selfish reasons.  This is intriguing. We learned from the emails that the organ donor’s associates in her writing group secretly disliked her and made fun of her. They picked up on her neediness and found her annoying. Even her unselfish, painful act could not make them admire her.”

A legal opinion from a copyright lawyer is on the side of the “poor little organ donor” and said that the blog, and especially the letter, were copyrightable material even if they are not considered literature. You can protect anything you create, even a musical riff in a song, with a copyright. The short story writer would have had to ask the donor’s permission to use the letter, or transform it so completely that it would not be recognizable.

There is a “fair use” clause that is often used in legal arguments in these cases.

It uses the idea that if the allegedly infringing work “merely supersedes” the original work or instead adds something new…whether and to what extent the new work is “transformative.”  Whether the raw material is transformed in the creation of new information, new aesthetics, new insights and understanding. The fair use doctrine intends to protect for the enrichment of society. In short, “the goal of copyright, to promote science and the arts, is generally furthered by the creation of transformative works.”


The legal battle—stay tuned.


Trudy Hale
Trudy Hale is Streetlight Magazine‘s Editor-in-Chief. Born in Memphis, she lived a somewhat chaotic and semi-glamorous life in Hollywood, married to a director and raising their two children. She moved to Virginia and opened Porches Writing Retreat in Nelson County, a retreat that supports and encourages writers of all stripes, regardless of age or checkered past. You can find out more about her on www.porcheswritingretreat.com.

Follow us!
Share this post with your friends.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.