A recent Slate magazine article posed interesting questions about where stories come from, and to whom or what fiction writers owe inspiration. Slate's Alexis Nowicki spent years obsessing over the possibility that the phenomenal 2017 story Cat Person was literally based on her own life, despite having never met the author. If this seems a little narcissistic, a flattering but unhealthy misunderstanding of how realistic fiction works, it turned out she may have been onto something.
A new article in New York Times Magazine explores a similar story with some wild twists along the way. "Who Is The Bad Art Friend?" tells the tale of an aspiring novelist named Dawn Dorland who decided to donate a kidney to a random stranger. Dorland spent years attending workshops at the GrubStreet writing center in Boston, and believed—hoped—that the writing community there would be moved by the selflessness of her live organ donation.
A month later, at the GrubStreet Muse conference in Boston […] barely anyone brought up what Dorland had done, even though everyone must have known she'd done it. "It was a little bit like, if you've been at a funeral and nobody wanted to talk about it — it just was strange to me," she said. "I left that conference with this question: Do writers not care about my kidney donation? Which kind of confused me, because I thought I was in a community of service-oriented people."
Dorland, who is white, later reached out to a successful writer at GrubStreet, a mixed-race Chinese-American woman named Sonya Larson. Dorland would learn that Larson had written a short story titled, "The Kindest," in which a Chinese-American woman gets in a drunk driving accident and receives a kidney donation from an ostensibly selfless live organ donor, a white woman with a compulsive need to be praised and appreciated for her supposedly selfless act.
Dorland felt that Larson had blatantly stolen her personal story for a work of fiction. Larson argued that writers take inspiration from all kinds of places, and that Dorland's story merely served as a jumping off point that sparked an idea that turned into an entirely different story in which the selfless live organ donation was only one minor detail.
"The Kindest" was selected for Boston's "One City, One Story" city-wide reading program, and Dorland sued Larson for copyright infringement. This was perceived by many in their writing community as a racist attack—a jealous white woman trying to take credit for the work of a woman of color—and Dorland's obsession quickly grew toxic, her lawsuits growing in scope and cost.
When the lawsuit hit the discovery phase, though, it exposed the GrubStreeters' online chats about Dorland—and it turns out she may have a valid case.
The story gets weird, dark, and complicated. Perhaps most remarkable is the fact that somehow, after 5 years of obsessions and tribulations, Dorland decided to pitch this not-so-flattering story to New York Times Magazine. It's long, but holy shit, it's worth it. (You can also listen on Audm.)
Who is the bad art friend? [Robert Kolker / New York Times Magazine]
Image: Jakirseu / Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 4.0)