Last week, before I went on vacation, Terry Teachout, who is the Wall Street Journal's drama critic and a very smart and entertaining writer, wrote a piece called "Shame on Elie Wiesel." In this piece, Teachout asks the question, "Do you have a right not to be written about?" He raises the question because of a play written by Deb Margolin called Imagining Madoff, in which Margolin imagines a fictional relationship between Bernie Madoff and Elie Wiesel, the Nobel-prize winning author and Holocaust survivor. Wiesel apparently objected, and there has been an ongoing brou-ha-ha.
I am often asked by beginning writers if they are "allowed" to write about something or someone. With the story I am working on right now, which involves the real-life violinist Joshua Bell, I am often asked if I am "allowed" to write about a real person. (It is, in fact, often the first question people ask when I tell them about my story.) It seems to me that these are the last questions any creative person should be asking, at least at the beginning of a project or a career. You have to write the stories you are called to write. You have to write what you feel in your heart. Unless you do those things first, your story won't be any good, so it won't matter what you've put on the page.
People are scared, for good reason, of the litigious society in which we live. There are laws that protect people from libel and slander, and that might prevent a writer from publishing certain kinds of work. But before any of that -- before the fear and the lawyers -- you have to have courage to tell the story you want to tell. Deb Margolin certainly did, and she continues to have it as she fights to get her play made.
Terry Teachout wrote about this courage -- and the "rights of a serious artists...to make art as they see fit" -- with powerful clarity. I think his piece should be required reading for all writers.
Lest anyone think that the point here is, "write whatever you want to write and to hell with the repercussions," read this lovely piece by Audrey Beth Stein on Heim Binas' blog.
For anyone interested in learning more about what the law does and doesn't allow in terms of privacy, there is an excellent overview in this 2004 piece by Kaylene JohnsonThe Writers' Chronicle, a publication of The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP)