The phrase 'the truth is stranger than fiction' used to be an exception to the rule, not the rule. But nowadays, it is typical of many incidents: from unbelievable global events to mind-blowing personal experiences, most of us find ourselves in the midst of an improbable crisis all too often, whether a natural disaster or a man-made one.
There is almost always a story to be told, whether it is a private heart-to-heart with a good friend or a public release on Facebook or the like. Make no mistake about it: the latter is not my cup of tea, or coffee for that matter, but I'm probably in the minority nowadays.
Many people love telling stories in a public forum, just as many others love consuming them. In some ways, I suppose it can be therapeutic for the storyteller and enthralling for the consumer, although sometimes tragic, like reading a good novel. The difference, of course, is that a novel is fiction, though often based on a real event. Also, authors, for the most part, use perspective to balance the story in a narrative, whereas telling a story outside of a specific genre is just that: telling a tale ... sometimes willy-nilly.
In any event, often there is the question of who owns the story. In other words, whose story is it anyhow?
Years ago, when I was a young writer, a friend casually told me about how she had spoken of me - that is, told my story - to a more experienced writer, explaining that I had encountered some tough issues at a small-town newspaper in the south, and had then moved north, and so on. According to my friend, the writer mentioned how interesting it would be to tell the story.
Hang on, I protested, that's my story, not hers! She can't write it! I distinctly remember the churning in my gut for days, if not weeks.
But fast-forward twenty-something years, and I am often intrigued by other people's stories and find them fascinating to write, too. On reflection, I am certain that the more experienced writer would have created a more believable story on the topic than I could have done in those days.
In my immaturity, I couldn't understand the importance of perspective in storytelling. But now I see that sometimes, when told through someone else's eyes, the writing becomes more objective.
Still, I chose to base my first novel, The Barrenness, on the topic of 'being fulfilled without having children', which is personal to me. In doing so, I created an unlikely viewpoint character, as authors so often do, to offer a wider perspective.
English writer Gavin Extence based his latest novel, The Mirror World of Melody Black, on his own experiences with bipolarity, and employed a female protagonist, presumably to create distance and offer a different perspective.
On the surface, it is clear to whom his story belongs, but digging deeper, like most good stories, his own is intertwined with the lives of his loved ones and acquaintances. Thankfully, the lines of demarcation, though fine, can be drawn in fiction, with guidelines and ethics, even if debates and lawsuits do occur.
But in non-fiction and the telling of real-life stories, it is a little more difficult to do so. In both cases, I have dropped many story ideas out of concern for entering a murky space. Even though I am pretty discreet and known for keeping confidentiality, I still can't tell you how many times I have been lambasted for disclosing information that I thought I had a right to tell.
Fair enough if it was clearly someone else's story, but it never really was clear. My gauge was that if the story served a greater cause or prevented a tragedy, or something to that effect, it belonged to a wider audience: it needed to be told.
A pretty fair measure if you ask me, although others might disagree. To this end, I often want to write about some really difficult issues, such as coping with Parkinson's, but as I am not the one with it, even if the sufferer is a close family member, it is not my story to tell, unless I can do so without divulging confidences or upsetting people.
Often this is a problem. For example, one writer, who wrote about date-rape, even though it was her story, offered an apology of sorts to friends and family to avoid discomfort and embarrassment.
Another acquaintance wrote colloquially about his own personal experience with an illness without considering his family. In his view, he had told his story to raise awareness about the illness; in theirs, he had disclosed family secrets and implicated some of them. Whose story is it?
It's a shame that there are no easy answers to this question. But much to the credit of the moral compass that we all have inside, most of us will wrangle with the question endlessly before telling all, unless, of course, that compass is broken.
But sometimes, even when we are clear that it is rightfully our story to tell, we have to accept that others who are directly or indirectly involved might disagree. In many ways, they will see it as their story, too, only with a different perspective.