Under normal circumstances I have no problem swapping life stories, telling friends or strangers about living in New Orleans when hurricane Katrina blew through or about daily life in a New Zealand city that’s suffered three pretty big earthquakes and over 10,000 aftershocks since September 2010.
Under normal circumstances.
But put me in a room full of writers and I might just clam up.
As a lover of creative writing myself, I understand the writer’s art of “hearing.” Ears trained in all facets of listening and/or eavesdropping with goal of unearthing gold to use in our work. “There’s a story in that!” We’ve all said it, right? Recently I was commenting about this subject in a room full of writers. I said something about “plagiarizing life” and that room full of writers shared a collective “ah ha” and proceeded to (I imagined) write down my phrase: “plagiarizing life.” Hey stop, that’s mine! I was planning to use that someday…
I’ve been attending a creative writing course this year. A couple of weeks ago the instructor gave us an in-class assignment: pair up and swap memories, ask questions of each other to really draw out the sensory aspects of those memories. So, I paired up and my partner spoke of traveling from England to Jadavpur, India in the early 1970s to where her aunt lived. Having grown up in England, she was determined to maintain her English identity amongst the cousins and saris and open sewers and the food that tasted so much better than when her parents cooked it at home in England. I spoke of rubble and flood waters and lonely chimneys in New Orleans and we both took feverish notes as the other spoke.
When we had all finished, our instructor told us that we were then free to use the other person’s experience in our own writing. Wait! What? Stop! That was my memory and I was saving it for something special. But too late. From my mouth to another writer’s ears. My memory of rubble and flood waters and chimneys was now fair game for my partner’s fiction.
Using memories, i.e. plagiarizing our lives, and eavesdropping on the bus or in the cafe is a good technique for writers. Maybe one of the best. If we didn’t cull from these experiences where would we even begin in stringing words together into something interesting and engaging? But here’s a secret (well, it’s not really secret because I learned about it in my course) about how to use memories in our fiction: according to the book The Writing Life: Writers on how they think and work edited by Marie Arana, our memories should only be seeds, triggers, launching pads for our fiction. Sticking too close to the facts of our lives is likely to make for some pretty stale writing. We need to give ourselves the freedom of stepping away from the “truth” to build a wonderful and varied fiction that bears only the seed of our facts.
So, big deal if I told my classmate about my response to post-hurricane New Orleans. Right? She may use it in her fiction but it will likely only be a starting point. What if it happened to be more? No worries. Because it is her writing the story and not me. So it will inevitably end up being a different fiction than anything I could dream up.
So, to arm myself against being too precious, I offer in this blogpost three snapshots of memories that I’ve been wholeheartedly hoarding for future writing projects. Maybe they’ll become your launching pad.
So go forth and find ideas in everything! (But sometimes it might be polite to ask, “May I please use that?” instead of blurting, “There’s a story in that!” and scribbling it down in our notebooks. I, for one, have been guilty of this.)