Plagiarizing life

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.)

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12 comments

  1. Excellent article, well written 🙂

  2. Sarah

    Thanks for sharing – my friend @ajackwriting sent me here and I really enjoyed this. I’ve long used real life to feed my poetry, and I think that’s fine for that form, but fiction is a whole different beast. Still, there’s a certain vulnerability in letting someone else use your memories for whatever they like. Have you tried memoir? It’s a great way to preseverve the special-ness of your memory, plus you get to shape it just so, in the same way as you would fiction.

    • Hi Sarah! Thanks for your comment. I haven’t attempted memoir and I’m not sure where I would begin! Have you worked in this genre? Memoir would certainly give me the opportunity to use many of those memories and life experiences that I have been saving for “a rainy day.” While I wouldn’t want to start handing out these memories or experiences to other writers to use to their heart’s content, I think for this post I needed to come to grips with the fact that sometimes that might just happen. I know I’ve used comments from other people and they’ve ended up in my short fiction! Good luck with your poetry. Happy writing…

      • Sarah

        Memoir is a lovely form – much more lively and soul-full (when it’s done well) than autobiography. I’ve written one of my most cherished and unique experiences into memoir for a competition, and although it didn’t place – because I was naughty and didn’t stick to the word limit – the judge absolutely loved it. I found that writing the experience actually changed it a little; I did have mixed feelings about carving little slices off the memory to make it fit the form, but if you were to do this for yourself, you probably wouldn’t have that problem. If you ever decide you’d like to give it a go (and, of course, there’s nothing to say you can’t use the memories again for your fiction after that), I’d be happy to share my piece and any thoughts about writing it that might be of help to you. I’m sure Andrew would be happy to facilitate!

  3. What a lovely offer, Sarah! I’d love to read your piece. I’m sure it would be inspiration for a genre I have yet to explore! I know so little about memoir, that I didn’t realize it’s different from autobiography. And I’m sure it’s different again from creative non-fiction. I do like the idea of recycling and reusing some memories across genres and it would be great to get some of your thoughts about writing memoir. At the moment I am working industriously to finish a portfolio for the creative writing course I am taking. After completion, I’d be interested in dipping my toes into memoir and see what happens. Thank you again!

  4. Nice piece. Very well written. I am also very hesitant to share my writing. I consider it so personal. Although somehow writing a blog doesn’t have quite the same feeling of making me feel naked in the middle of a room the way sharing in a creative writing class does. Maybe it’s the semi-anonymity, I’m not sure. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks for your comment! Interesting that you feel writing a blog provides semi-anonymity while sharing your fiction makes you feel naked! I think I am the opposite. Writing a blog feels much more personal. I’ve struggled with the decision to have a blog for that reason. For me, writing this blog is about sharing aspects of my life. That’s a hard thing to decide to do. Writing fiction and sharing it is just that — fiction. Made up. Conjured up. And somehow less personal. What do you think?

      • Even though it sounds crazy, I still believe that a blog is not as personal as my fiction writing. I really like to dress up. If you see me dressed for work, you would think I worked in a Fortune 500 company (although as the secretary since I can’t afford Gucci or anything like that) instead of at a school. So, writing for my blog is like casual Friday. Whereas my fiction writing is more like dressing up for an awards show. Mainly it’s because it shows what I’m thinking since some of the fiction is based in truth. The problem is that I’ve always been shunned for being different. I guess that’s why I don’t like sharing it. I feel as if people will judge me or maybe they’ll see me for the crazy person I really am;

      • It’s so easy to think that the way I feel about something, the next person will feel the same! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on blogging vs fiction. Your experience is the opposite to mine yet it’s so good to be reminded of our individuality and to be able to appreciate it in each other. Where do you share your fiction? And oh, I love dressing nicely too. Always dress for the job you want! Not the job you have.

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