Friday, October 10, 2008

The Stork Brings Them



Where do stories come from? Do you write about yourself and your own life, or do you take someone else's story? I think there's a third option. It's the one I use and it was stumbling across this—I don't want to say method, because it's not that structured for me—but concept, I guess, of how to write fiction that enabled me to begin.

But before I get to that, I'll talk about the other approaches and why they don't work for me.

Most of the time, I cannot write about myself and my life. I am in awe of people who do it, but I can't. Why not? First there's the big shell I carry around with me. I'm a pretty private person and I don't want to reveal my icky insides to other people—especially people I don't know, who don't care about me. I want people to pay attention to the shell, but not go deeper. Not see what's inside.

Secondly, there are the other people in my life, who I'd have to expose in order to make the story any good. Being a "nice girl" I can't go there—even with people I don't know that well. I can't let myself expose the slimy parts of their interiors either. I freeze up when anyone's looking over my shoulder, even figuratively, and whenever I've tried to make real-life people characters, they're always hovering right behind me, staring down at the words I'm using about them, saying "Oh no! Don't tell everyone that!"

I also haven't had any success getting stories written about real events that have happened to other people. I can't take a story from the news, say, or interview someone and then adapt that person's story to something fictional. I don't really understand why not, but I think it's because even though the real people who inspired the story aren't from my own life, I still feel them hovering. I want to get their story told accurately, but I don't know everything about what really happened to them, and for me, that's paralyzing because I get so stuck on trying to make the story right that ironically, I can't write honestly.

Kael and I had an interesting email exchange recently about the need to be honest while writing and how writing just isn't very good if the writer is holding back or censoring in any way.

Honesty is essential for all writing, including fiction.

But that doesn't mean all fiction has to be based on true stories or real-life situations. What it means to me is that the depiction of the characters has to ring true—and real people are not perfect or good all the time. There's ugliness to people—everyone. And the flip side is true about the bad guys. There are good qualities in people—everyone. No one is universally one way.

So since I can't draw from anyone's real life experiences in order to write a story, what do I do instead? I let my imagination take over. I start with a concept—a "what if", that isn't connected to a real person—not anyone from my life, or anyone from real life anywhere. Then I start to write, and as I write almost everything about the story emerges. Because the characters and situations they find themselves in don't come from real life, I feel completely free to be completely honest about them. I don't shy away from their ugliness. I don't feel constrained or worried about hurting anyone's feelings. I can rip open their shells and describe in honest detail all of the ickiness that's inside.

It's the only way I can write fiction. And as a bonus, it's also a lot of fun! The imagination is incredibly powerful and when it's let loose, amazing things happen.

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