As my very smart husband says to me with a twinkle in his eye, “You don’t have to try to turn your life into fiction—it already is fiction.”
It takes a certain distancing to create a fictional character that is not literally you. One way to separate you from your character? Join a critique group.
Our group of four writers meets twice monthly. My group tells me when to cut an entire thread from my novel (even when I whine, "But I really did pretend I had wings when I was a teen") and when to cut a character.
For example, in my real life, my sister plays a major role. So when my critique group suggested deep-sixing the sister in my current novel-in-poems-in-progress—aargh!
I don’t take every suggestion they make...but after weeks of reflection, I decided they were right—the story works better without her.
My family’s long and painful quest for a dog turned into THE GREAT DOG SEARCH (which is on my CD/MP3). I tell this story when I speak in schools, beginning with the dogs we had before we found Rosie (including Magic, the huge black lab who was a “career change dog”—he flunked out of Seeing Eye Dog School—and Luke, the white puppy who was killed by a car.)
“I knew you were going to laugh when I talked about Magic, and I knew you were going to gasp when Luke died,” I say to the students at the end, “because this is one of our family stories.”
After dozens of tellings at the dinner table, I’ve cut the unnecessary parts and figured out how to get a laugh, how long to pause when the car speeds around the corner, and how to describe Rosie, with her Cleopatra eyes.
* * * * *
A family story
is a piece of shattered glass
tossed and washed
its fierce edges
so I can hold
in my hand
(c) April Halprin Wayland
We all have family stories. Looking for story ideas? Try the WRITING WORKOUT below.
FAMILY STORIES-- Stories You Didn't Know You Knew
by April Halprin Wayland
You know the stories your family tells again and again whenever someone new comes over? Like the time you added salt instead of sugar into the cake mix or the fact that your brother is accident prone (is the family joke that he has a frequent flyer card in the emergency room?)
You tell these stories over and over because they work—perhaps they get a laugh or they explain something (so that’s why Joey has the scar on his arm). They bring people around the table closer together, too. These stories have stood the test of time.
Try one of the following:
- Invite someone over for dinner. Or go to someone's house for a meal. Listen for the stories. Take notes.
- Interview someone in your house. Ask them to tell you a story about you when you were little. Take notes.
- Look at family photos or videos with a relative and ask them about family stories. Take notes.
- With a notebook and pen, walk slowly through each room of your home. Does any object remind you of a family story? Perhaps a rocking chair was brought by your grandfather from the "old country"; maybe you remember the day your mother brought home that blue bowl—and redecorated the whole kitchen to match it. Take notes.
- Pair off with a classmate and interview each other, sharing your family dinner table stories.
Now, choose one of the stories you've jotted down. Write it as if you are telling it at the dinner table. Include as many of the five senses as possible (his hair smelled of lemons, her apron felt stiff and starchy, the air was freezing cold).