Who Is the Bad Art Friend?

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From The New York Times:

There is a sunny earnestness to Dawn Dorland, an un-self-conscious openness that endears her to some people and that others have found to be a little extra. Her friends call her a “feeler”: openhearted and eager, pressing to make connections with others even as, in many instances, she feels like an outsider. An essayist and aspiring novelist who has taught writing classes in Los Angeles, she is the sort of writer who, in one authorial mission statement, declares her faith in the power of fiction to “share truth,” to heal trauma, to build bridges. (“I’m compelled at funerals to shake hands with the dusty men who dig our graves,” she has written.) She is known for signing off her emails not with “All best” or “Sincerely,” but “Kindly.”

On June 24, 2015, a year after completing her M.F.A. in creative writing, Dorland did perhaps the kindest, most consequential thing she might ever do in her life. She donated one of her kidneys, and elected to do it in a slightly unusual and particularly altruistic way. As a so-called nondirected donation, her kidney was not meant for anyone in particular but instead was part of a donation chain, coordinated by surgeons to provide a kidney to a recipient who may otherwise have no other living donor. There was some risk with the procedure, of course, and a recovery to think about, and a one-kidney life to lead from that point forward. But in truth, Dorland, in her 30s at the time, had been wanting to do it for years. “As soon as I learned I could,” she told me recently, on the phone from her home in Los Angeles, where she and her husband were caring for their toddler son and elderly pit bull (and, in their spare time, volunteering at dog shelters and searching for adoptive families for feral cat litters). “It’s kind of like not overthinking love, you know?”

Several weeks before the surgery, Dorland decided to share her truth with others. She started a private Facebook group, inviting family and friends, including some fellow writers from GrubStreet, the Boston writing center where Dorland had spent many years learning her craft. After her surgery, she posted something to her group: a heartfelt letter she’d written to the final recipient of the surgical chain, whoever they may be.

. . . .

The procedure went well. By a stroke of luck, Dorland would even get to meet the recipient, an Orthodox Jewish man, and take photos with him and his family. In time, Dorland would start posting outside the private group to all of Facebook, celebrating her one-year “kidneyversary” and appearing as a UCLA Health Laker for a Day at the Staples Center to support live-organ donation. But just after the surgery, when she checked Facebook, Dorland noticed some people she’d invited into the group hadn’t seemed to react to any of her posts. On July 20, she wrote an email to one of them: a writer named Sonya Larson.

. . . .

When it comes to literary success, the stakes can be pretty low — a fellowship or residency here, a short story published there. But it seemed as if Larson was having the sort of writing life that Dorland once dreamed of having. After many years, Dorland, still teaching, had yet to be published. But to an extent that she once had a writing community, GrubStreet was it. And Larson was, she believed, a close friend.

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Over email, on July 21, 2015, Larson answered Dorland’s message with a chirpy reply — “How have you been, my dear?” Dorland replied with a rundown of her next writing residencies and workshops, and as casually as possible, asked: “I think you’re aware that I donated my kidney this summer. Right?”

Only then did Larson gush: “Ah, yes — I did see on Facebook that you donated your kidney. What a tremendous thing!”

Afterward, Dorland would wonder: If she really thought it was that great, why did she need reminding that it happened?

. . . .

They wouldn’t cross paths again until the following spring — a brief hello at A.W.P., the annual writing conference, where the subject of Dorland’s kidney went unmentioned. A month later, at the GrubStreet Muse conference in Boston, Dorland sensed something had shifted — not just with Larson but with various GrubStreet eminences, old friends and mentors of hers who also happened to be members of Larson’s writing group, the Chunky Monkeys. Barely anyone brought up what she’d 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.”

It didn’t take long for a clue to surface. On June 24, 2016, a Facebook friend of Dorland’s named Tom Meek commented on one of Dorland’s posts.

Sonya read a cool story about giving out a kidney. You came to my mind and I wondered if you were the source of inspiration?

Still impressed you did this.

Dorland was confused. A year earlier, Larson could hardly be bothered to talk about it. Now, at Trident bookstore in Boston, she’d apparently read from a new short story about that very subject. Meek had tagged Larson in his comment, so Dorland thought that Larson must have seen it. She waited for Larson to chime in — to say, “Oh, yes, I’d meant to tell you, Dawn!” or something like that — but there was nothing. Why would Sonya write about it, she wondered, and not tell her?

Six days later, she decided to ask her. Much as she had a year earlier, she sent Larson a friendly email, including one pointed request: “Hey, I heard you wrote a kidney-donation story. Cool! Can I read it?”

. . . .

Ten days later, Larson wrote back saying that yes, she was working on a story “about a woman who receives a kidney, partially inspired by how my imagination took off after learning of your own tremendous donation.” In her writing, she spun out a scenario based not on Dorland, she said, but on something else — themes that have always fascinated her. “I hope it doesn’t feel too weird for your gift to have inspired works of art,” Larson wrote.

Dorland wrote back within hours. She admitted to being “a little surprised,” especially “since we’re friends and you hadn’t mentioned it.” The next day, Larson replied, her tone a bit removed, stressing that her story was “not about you or your particular gift, but about narrative possibilities I began thinking about.”

But Dorland pressed on. “It’s the interpersonal layer that feels off to me, Sonya. … You seemed not to be aware of my donation until I pointed it out. But if you had already kicked off your fictional project at this time, well, I think your behavior is a little deceptive. At least, weird.”

Larson’s answer this time was even cooler. “Before this email exchange,” she wrote, “I hadn’t considered that my individual vocal support (or absence of it) was of much significance.”

Which, though it was shrouded in politesse, was a different point altogether. Who, Larson seemed to be saying, said we were such good friends?

For many years now, Dorland has been working on a sprawling novel, “Econoline,” which interweaves a knowing, present-day perspective with vivid, sometimes brutal but often romantic remembrances of an itinerant rural childhood. The van in the title is, she writes in a recent draft, “blue as a Ty-D-Bowl tablet. Bumbling on the highway, bulky and off-kilter, a junebug in the wind.” The family in the narrative survives on “government flour, canned juice and beans” and “ruler-long bricks of lard” that the father calls “commodities.”

Dorland is not shy about explaining how her past has afforded her a degree of moral clarity that others might not come by so easily. She was raised in near poverty in rural Iowa. Her parents moved around a lot, she told me, and the whole family lived under a stigma. One small consolation was the way her mother modeled a certain perverse self-reliance, rejecting the judgments of others. Another is how her turbulent youth has served as a wellspring for much of her writing. She made her way out of Iowa with a scholarship to Scripps College in California, followed by divinity school at Harvard. Unsure of what to do next, she worked day jobs in advertising in Boston while dabbling in workshops at the GrubStreet writing center. When she noticed classmates cooing over Marilynne Robinson’s novel “Housekeeping,” she picked up a copy. After inhaling its story of an eccentric small-town upbringing told with sensitive, all-seeing narration, she knew she wanted to become a writer.

At GrubStreet, Dorland eventually became one of several “teaching scholars” at the Muse conference, leading workshops on such topics as “Truth and Taboo: Writing Past Shame.” Dorland credits two members of the Chunky Monkeys group, Adam Stumacher and Chris Castellani, with advising her. But in hindsight, much of her GrubStreet experience is tied up with her memories of Sonya Larson. She thinks they first met at a one-off writing workshop Larson taught, though Larson, for her part, says she doesn’t remember this. Everybody at GrubStreet knew Larson — she was one of the popular, ever-present people who worked there. On nights out with other Grubbies, Dorland remembers Larson getting personal, confiding about an engagement, the death of someone she knew and plans to apply to M.F.A. programs — though Larson now says she shared such things widely. When a job at GrubStreet opened up, Larson encouraged her to apply. Even when she didn’t get it, everyone was so gracious about it, including Larson, that she felt included all the same.

Now, as she read these strained emails from Larson — about this story of a kidney donation; her kidney donation? — Dorland wondered if everyone at GrubStreet had been playing a different game, with rules she’d failed to grasp. On July 15, 2016, Dorland’s tone turned brittle, even wounded: “Here was a friend entrusting something to you, making herself vulnerable to you. At least, the conclusion I can draw from your responses is that I was mistaken to consider us the friends that I did.”

Larson didn’t answer right away. Three days later, Dorland took her frustrations to Facebook, in a blind item: “I discovered that a writer friend has based a short story on something momentous I did in my own life, without telling me or ever intending to tell me (another writer tipped me off).” Still nothing from Larson.

Dorland waited another day and then sent her another message both in a text and in an email: “I am still surprised that you didn’t care about my personal feelings. … I wish you’d given me the benefit of the doubt that I wouldn’t interfere.” Yet again, no response.

The next day, on July 20, she wrote again: “Am I correct that you do not want to make peace? Not hearing from you sends that message.”

Larson answered this time. “I see that you’re merely expressing real hurt, and for that I am truly sorry,” she wrote on July 21. But she also changed gears a little. “I myself have seen references to my own life in others’ fiction, and it certainly felt weird at first. But I maintain that they have a right to write about what they want — as do I, and as do you.”

Hurt feelings or not, Larson was articulating an ideal — a principle she felt she and all writers ought to live up to. “For me, honoring another’s artistic freedom is a gesture of friendship,” Larson wrote, “and of trust.”

. . . .

Larson and Dorland have each taken and taught enough writing workshops to know that artists, almost by definition, borrow from life. They transform real people and events into something invented, because what is the great subject of art — the only subject, really — if not life itself? This was part of why Larson seemed so unmoved by Dorland’s complaints. Anyone can be inspired by anything. And if you don’t like it, why not write about it yourself?

But to Dorland, this was more than just material. She’d become a public voice in the campaign for live-organ donation, and she felt some responsibility for representing the subject in just the right way. The potential for saving lives, after all, matters more than any story. And yes, this was also her own life — the crystallization of the most important aspects of her personality, from the traumas of her childhood to the transcending of those traumas today. Her proudest moment, she told me, hadn’t been the surgery itself, but making it past the psychological and other clearances required to qualify as a donor. “I didn’t do it in order to heal. I did it because I had healed — I thought.”

The writing world seemed more suspicious to her now. At around the time of her kidney donation, there was another writer, a published novelist, who announced a new book with a protagonist who, in its description, sounded to her an awful lot like the one in “Econoline” — not long after she shared sections of her work in progress with him. That author’s book hasn’t been published, and so Dorland has no way of knowing if she’d really been wronged, but this only added to her sense that the guard rails had fallen off the profession. Beyond unhindered free expression, Dorland thought, shouldn’t there be some ethics? “What do you think we owe one another as writers in community?” she would wonder in an email, several months later, to The Times’s “Dear Sugars” advice podcast. (The show never responded.) “How does a writer like me, not suited to jadedness, learn to trust again after artistic betrayal?”

. . . .

By summer’s end, she and Sonya had forged a fragile truce. “I value our relationship and I regret my part in these miscommunications and misunderstandings,” Larson wrote on Aug. 16, 2016. Not long after, Dorland Googled “kidney” and “Sonya Larson” and a link turned up.

The story was available on Audible — an audio version, put out by a small company called Plympton. Dorland’s dread returned. In July, Larson told her, “I’m still working on the story.” Now here it was, ready for purchase.

She went back and forth about it, but finally decided not to listen to “The Kindest.” When I asked her about it, she took her time parsing that decision. “What if I had listened,” she said, “and just got a bad feeling, and just felt exploited. What was I going to do with that? What was I going to do with those emotions? There was nothing I thought I could do.”

So she didn’t click. “I did what I thought was artistically and emotionally healthy,” she said. “And also, it’s kind of what she had asked me to do.”

Dorland could keep ‘‘The Kindest” out of her life for only so long. In August 2017, the print magazine American Short Fiction published the short story. She didn’t buy a copy. Then in June 2018, she saw that the magazine dropped its paywall for the story. The promo and opening essay on American Short Fiction’s home page had startled her: a photograph of Larson, side-by-side with a shot of the short-fiction titan Raymond Carver. The comparison does make a certain sense: In Carver’s story “Cathedral,” a blind man proves to have better powers of perception than a sighted one; in “The Kindest,” the white-savior kidney donor turns out to need as much salvation as the Asian American woman she helped. Still, seeing Larson anointed this way was, to say the least, destabilizing.

Then she started to read the story. She didn’t get far before stopping short. Early on, Rose, the donor, writes a letter to Chuntao, asking to meet her.

I myself know something of suffering, but from those experiences I’ve acquired both courage and perseverance. I’ve also learned to appreciate the hardship that others are going through, no matter how foreign. Whatever you’ve endured, remember that you are never alone. … As I prepared to make this donation, I drew strength from knowing that my recipient would get a second chance at life. I withstood the pain by imagining and rejoicing in YOU.

Here, to Dorland’s eye, was an echo of the letter she’d written to her own recipient — and posted on her private Facebook group — rejiggered and reworded, yet still, she believed, intrinsically hers. Dorland was amazed. It had been three years since she donated her kidney. Larson had all that time to launder the letter — to rewrite it drastically or remove it — and she hadn’t bothered.

She showed the story’s letter to her husband, Chris, who had until that point given Larson the benefit of the doubt.

“Oh,” he said.

Link to the rest at The New York Times (unfortunately, there is a paywall) and thanks to D for the tip.

Perhaps PG is feeling a little unfeeling today. He blames an approaching winter storm.

From a strictly legal standpoint, nobody owns a story. The first person who created a story that follows the boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl (and all the various gender variations to the basic structure) doesn’t own the story structure.

Copyright only protects a particular expression of a story, not the ideas behind the story. For example, PG can easily recall multiple instantiations of the following structure:

  1. Heroine sets out on a quest to accomplish something important. The quest involves a journey.
  2. Heroine encounters multiple obstacles and setbacks during the journey, some of which seem almost impossible to overcome.
  3. Using strength, skill, brains, and perhaps, luck or divine assistance, heroine overcomes each obstacle and ends up triumphant in the end.

The Odyssey follows this pattern. So does the story of King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail, along with Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

In the OP, Ms. Dorland was not the first person to face the emotional stress of donating a kidney, making a great sacrifice, or risking her life to help someone else, known or unknown.

For PG, Ms. Larson’s explanation, that she wrote a story “about a woman who receives a kidney, partially inspired by how my imagination took off after learning of your own tremendous donation” rings true and does not violate any exclusive right of Ms. Dorland to tell such a story. Whether Ms. Larson heard about Ms. Dorland’s experience directly from Ms. Dorland or from someone else is, for PG, immaterial.

To get a bit legalistic about the matter, if Ms. Dorland wished to make certain Ms. Larson didn’t use her experience to write a story, Ms. Dorland should have asked for Ms. Larson to keep the matter confidential at a minimum. Absent Ms. Larson’s agreement to keep the matter secret, for PG, even a request would not grant Ms. Dorland any sort of exclusive right to the story.

Perhaps if the two women had engaged in a lengthy series of exchanges that were clearly intended and understood to remain confidential and the kidney transplant story was part of this series of conversations, Ms. Dorland might have had some legitimate expectation concerning Ms. Larson’s keeping the matter confidential.

But perhaps PG has missed something in the OP that makes his opinions questionable. He’s happy to hear contrary views in the comments. If this is something only two women would understand (but a lot of pairs of women would understand the same way), PG is happy to be told of his male blindness as well.

11 thoughts on “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?”

  1. Intrigued, and procrastinating, and because we do have a NYT subscription, I popped over to see the rest of the article.

    And came across the following:
    Among her friends, Larson clearly explained the influence of Dorland’s letter. In January 2016, she texted two friends: “I think I’m DONE with the kidney story but I feel nervous about sending it out b/c it literally has sentences that I verbatim grabbed from Dawn’s letter on FB. I’ve tried to change it but I can’t seem to — that letter was just too damn good. I’m not sure what to do … feeling morally compromised/like a good artist but a shitty person.” from a trove of documents that seemed to recast the conflict in an entirely new way. There, in black and white, were pages and pages of printed texts and emails between Larson and her writer friends, gossiping about Dorland and deriding everything about her — not just her claim of being appropriated but the way she talked publicly about her kidney donation.

    I will be watching for the followup.

    I have used part of ONE perfect phrase I told the originator (who is in a Goodreads group I’m in) that I wanted to use. She said to go ahead (she’s not a writer) – and then I wrote to her with the actual implementation to tell her thanks, and show her what I’d done.

    That’s being sensitive to using someone else’s words – literally. It ends up a couple of lines at the end of a scene, in the second volume of PC, which will itself be around the same 167K as the first one.

    Plagiarism is, again literally, the thing writers should fear the most. Precisely because you acknowledge someone else got something just right, you give them credit.

    I don’t buy the excuses – because I have documented my own struggles to get words right – where I spend orders of magnitude more words figuring things out than I end up with in a finished scene. In writing. Stored and backed up.

    • Yeah, Larson is gross. Dorland comes across as super needy, and maybe she *does* want to be a white savior, but Larson using her inside access to lift so many elements, without permission, is just… vile. Legal, probably, but still vile.

      Larson could have made her story to be about a partial liver donation, or bone marrow, or *something else. * It was crystal clear TO HER that Dorland considered her a friend, whether that was mutual or not.

      She SHOULD feel like a shitty person. May karma give both women exactly what they deserve.

  2. “Cat Person” (thanks for the Slate article link) was nicely written, and shows what professors should be emphasizing to their students: If you’re going to use someone real as a model for a character, they and their friends and loved ones should not be able to tell. Even if it’s wildly favorable.

    Or with lots of visible disclaimers.

    Feel free to use your OWN life – that’s part of your raw material.

    I still feel queasy about the First Lady plagiarisms of the previous guy’s wife.

    And, of course, the more famous you are, the more likely it is someone will notice, and tell the real life model. And you never know when you might go viral.

  3. This woman thinks Ms D reads as if there’s something wrong with her. Too needy, too… something. She seems to have expected everyone to shower her with praise for her donation. Whether they were tongue-tied or what I don’t know, but it seems unreasonable.

    Now, what ABE above has spotted, the actual plagiarism is another question and that is not excusable.

  4. Yes, the comment about how Dorian’s has acquired more moral clarity than other People? That’s awfully presumptuous and calls her reasons for donating into serious question. She evidently wants that donation to be the only thing anyone ever talks about again.

  5. Short literary works are protectable (poems, lyrics) by copyright. The heart and soul of the letter was taken by Larson, admittedly so. I think it qualifies as infringement of the letter, not the story. But there are no damages, so no case.

    I think this whole thing has been blown out of proportion. The judicial system is not designed for this BS. . . . but the Twittersphere is!

  6. This was apparently one of the somewhat misleading stories (I’ve been reading up on the rabbithole yesterday), and the actual sequence of events went something like Dorland created a private “stay updated on medical information” group before she went into the surgery whirlwind with people she thought were friends, got a notification that Larson was reading every single thing without interacting, asked Larson if maybe they wanted out of the group since it was potential TMI, was assured no, found out that there was a story going on, asked about that, was assured it had nothing to do with her, then ended up finding out much later that much of her letter was plagiarized word for word in the first draft of the story and was only edited to plagiarize less of it. (Chat logs revealed this was absolutely intentional on Larson’s part.) When Dorland reported the copyright infringement to certain particular pubs, Larson sued her for defamation, and only then did she countersue.

    So the plagiarism of the letter was real and significantly worse if you read the first draft (which won a $25K fellowship) rather than the final one. And there would have been no copyright case at all if Larson hadn’t sued for defamation, as the letter-writer preferred and tried to use arbitration.

    Or as Courtney Milan said (very much paraphrased), there was really no good reason to exact quote the letter because right, wrong, or indifferent, going to court over it was dumb. And Larson’s the one that chose to go to court, which was double dumb.

  7. I’m just waiting for someone to say “But it’s idea theft and that’s illegal.” In California. For film and TV. And only when actually presented for mutual advantage (“credit” can be enough) with the intention of making a recorded audiovisual presentation. (Besides, Desny is limited to contract-like damages, not the kind of control these… ladies… were playing with.)

    And “right of publicity” would have applied only if there had been appropriation not of the story, but of identity.

      • Thimble, not teapot. And not a giant’s thimble, either.

        The closest this comes to a legally defensible theory is some variety of “unfair competition” — which requires that both sides of the dispute had already been in commerce regarding the same/similar goods/services prior to the alleged unfair practice. (Yes, there is the special case of entering-a-field-through-an-unfair-practice, but there are other curlicues to that that make it inapplicable for “mere speech.”)

        This really reminds me of a very, very bad Faulkner-inspired pastiche about Margaret’s Aunt Millicent’s secret family recipe for elderberry crumble, passed down orally to Margaret and stolen by Dubious Deborah one hot afternoon over mint juleps in the kitchen, with Deborah observing just enough to infer the secret family recipe and then enter it as her own at the next County Fair, followed by generations of interfamily conflict. We haven’t gotten to the “generations” part… yet.

        The moral: If an author’s prospective behavior sounds like it might have come from a pastiche of great literature, don’t do it. And if it’s not-so-great literature…

  8. I’m so fascinated by the Larson v. Dorland saga. I honestly don’t want to be on that jury to decide whether the appropriation of her letter was fair use or not. But, in either way, Larson’s actions were unethical. The world’s spotlight on her is payment enough.

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