Monday, March 11, 2013

I just finished up my third essay for The Gaggle, which was my favorite one yet. It was also the third one, out of every single one of them, that was sparked by a conversation I had with one of my friends or family. It’s inevitable, I know, that writers will have ideas sparked by conversations with the people in our lives… it’s part of the process of interacting with other people. Listening to what they’ve said, and remembering it, and noticing a way in which it’s relevant to things we’ve been thinking about on our own.

But it got me thinking about the way I’ve cannibalized 34 years’ worth of other people’s memories, discussions, secrets and stories to populate my books with authentic moments and quirks. It’s never been conscious… in virtually every case, they’ve slipped in there before I even realized it, and I’ve only realized upon re-reading my writing that a particular idea was borne out of something specific I experienced with somebody in real life. Just the other day I sketched a couple lines about a character in my work-in-progress, and then smiled, because I recognized him. I’d unconsciously given him a trait that amused me about somebody I dated ten (holy shit) years ago, and have scarcely spoken to since.

Now, to be clear—I didn’t “put” my ex in my book. I’ve never just picked somebody up and lifted them, like one of those fairground stuffed animal grabbing machines, out of the crowded bullpen of my memory and dropped that person into a story. What’s more challenging, and more rewarding, and ultimately way more fun, is to create new characters that are shaded with the kind of quirks that real people have, the stupid or beautiful or generous things that real people say and do. Any time that one of these is based in real experience, what I love to do is shift it… spin it the opposite way, pull it in a different direction, drop it into an unrelated context. Otherwise, it feels like cheating.

So, for anybody reading this who happens to know me, here is what I can promise: I will never put you, whole and recognizable, into a story. But that nervous tic of yours, your favorite swear word, that story you told me about your mother-in-law—well. I’m sorry, and I love you, but those are fair game.

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