You Belong to Me

I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought, You belong to me…”

A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway

This theme of writers using others–those with a kind of power or rank using those without it–is prevalent in my work in progress, HEMINGWAY’S GIRL. It was inspired by Hemingway’s relentless use of his friends, enemies, and acquaintances in his fiction. He didn’t even always go to the trouble of disguising their names, and when confronted by them, passed it off as satire. “Can’t you take a joke?”

I’m careful in my own fiction about using others. To say that I’ve never done so would be a lie. After all, what am I but the blend of words I’ve read, songs I’ve heard,  a million conversations with thousands of people, an application of trend, time, civilization, geography, and religion. I’m the mathematical sum of all of my literal and figurative experience, so my fiction is naturally a product of it. It has to be.

But I’m not just a transmitter. I don’t record in the same manner a camera takes pictures, moving or otherwise. I have choices. I can create the myth I want to create, manipulate the facts, produce the evidence I want to convince others of what I’m trying to say. There’s power in that, but there’s also responsibility.

If you’re given a camera at a wedding, where do you point the lens? Do you take pictures of the best man groping a married woman, an underage cousin drunk and sick in the potted plants, the father of the bride arguing with the hotel manager over the bill? Or do you turn the lens to the newly wedded couple, forehead to forehead, while they dance to their song? The old woman seemingly watching her granddaughter, but seeing the ghost of her young self as a new bride? The nieces and nephews in undone buttons and untied ribbons, glorying in eating cake for dinner and the freedom of up-past-bedtime?

Writers, artists, musicians, everyone, the choice is yours. It’s all there before you. The question is where do you put your focus and why do you put it there? We could debate the merits of optimism versus pessimism, but I think the bottom line is that the artist, the writer, the transmitter must render her subjects true-ly without diminishing or exploiting them.

What about you? Where do you point your lens? Do you prefer to tell the tales from the shadows or the dance floor? Do you represent specific people or kinds of people in your work?

(This blog post was inspired by Dani Shapiro’s post On Being an Outsider.)

*Photo courtesy of Altingfest at*


18 thoughts on “You Belong to Me

  1. Lara Taylor says:

    Beautifully written Erika! 🙂 I write a lot from the shadows I think. Then, upon re-read, I may find that I need to add some “on the dance floor” details! 🙂

  2. Love your analogy and your interpretation of the wedding, Erika. And it’s why I love historical fiction. So often, what historians tell of history is the picture of the wedding couple dancing. Historical novelists offer up a deeper glimpse with stories from the shadows.

    • Erika Robuck says:

      Jessica–Great point about historical novelists writing about the history and shadows of the obvious. That reminds me of THE POSTMISTRESS by Sarah Blake. In her Afterword, she said that she aimed to tell “the story that lies around the edges of the photographs.”

  3. This really made me stop and think. As a new writer, I don’t have much to go on yet but I see a place for both. The dance floor is a wonderful place to be but the shadows seem to give us the deeper understanding of why that dance floor is so great. The balance of the two is a tricky job. As a reader, a glimpse of the underbelly of humanity is necessary to fully understand the glory of goodness.

    Great post, E!

  4. Great point – and I appreciate both kinds of writing – the photographic kind as well as that so lovingly painted, but painted as if it were a photograph; a moment in time. I find that my writing trends toward mixes of people – I swap traits here and there. I find different people, even so-called ordinary people so fascinating that I like to include them. My biggest challenge sometimes is to keep from creating caricatures as I try to infuse some of the people on the edges with more personality/individuality than they need.

    Another brilliantly written post that’s got me thinking about my current ms… Thanks! 🙂

  5. “But I’m not just a transmitter…I have choices.”

    Love that line. I’ve always felt that way about painting (even though I’m not a painter). I noticed that the paintings I like are never the ones that look so realistic they look like photographs, but the ones that take the image and add their own interpretation to it.

    Art isn’t just about copying life, it’s about interpreting what we see in it and bringing out the indescribable. I use parts of people I know in my stories, but those parts always evolve into a different kind of truth.

    Thanks for this post and for sharing on Twitter–you might have inspired me to write a post of my own 🙂

  6. […] Last week, Erika Robuck asked a similar question on Twitter and discussed this on her blog: […]

  7. Nina Badzin says:

    Such an important question, Erika–relates to POV as well as plot. Working on my WIP at this early stage, I keep asking myself “why do we need to see THIS particular scene” before I commit it to paper.

    • erikarobuck says:

      Nina–At Donald Maass’ recent Breakout Novel Intensive he had us separate each scene, write a one sentence description of it, and determine its placement and fate in the scope of the entire WIP. It was a tremendously useful exercise.

  8. Ooohhh– I love that question, as well as your discussion: “Where do you point your lens?”
    Great question. I find myself always drawn to the steep contrasts, between light and dark, smooth and rough, careful and reckless … because this contrast is what I think makes the best story. In photography, and in literature. This is where my writing always goes.
    Great discussion, Erika! So glad I met you … love following your writing. – JK

    • erikarobuck says:

      Jennifer–I love your view from both a writer’s and photographer’s perspective. From your blog and photos I can see how well you use contrast to show all aspects of a scene. Thanks for stopping by!

  9. Kelly says:

    really an excellent, thought provoking post. thanks!

  10. Ollin says:

    I’ve started out before with a “copy” of a real person, but as you go on–or as I go on–I find the character becomes more and more their own person. They have parts of other people, but really they are parts of me.

    I guess every writer has a little bit of a multiple personality disorder, hehe. Great post! It’s something I often think about, how far do I go representing real people? Where do I draw the line? Good food for thought.

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