Monday, August 12, 2013

Real Life Fiction

     I am a thoroughly unimaginative writer. I had this pointed out to me by a second grader (!!), during the Q & A part of a school visit.

     "Where do you get your ideas?" is always a favorite question.  This particular day I was explaining the origins of My Best Friend and First Grade Stinks (my daughter, Lily), Yankee Girl (my own childhood) and Jimmy's Stars, (my mother's family).  When I finished another little hand waved from the back of the pack,

    "So you just write about your own family?" said the student.

     I had to take a beat before I answered "yes."

     It had never occurred to me before,  All of my stories up to that point did have their origins in family stories.  I come from a family of storytellers, and I grew up always looking for stories of my own to add to the family collection.

     Since then, I have broadened my scope a little.  A Tree for Emmy is based on Lily's best and oldest friend. The Roller Coaster Kid came from the father of my next-door-neighbor.  I am currently working on a short story based on two of Lily's friends,  But try as I may, my stories always seem to begin with a character or situation that I have encountered in my own life.
However, starting off with something that happened in "real life" does not mean that I am merely narrating an actual occurrence.  Life is not so tidy as fiction. Life does not have opening scenes, exposition, a climax and a denouement.  Sometimes life does have those elements, but it also has a lot of extraneous stuff as well.  Fiction has filters.  Fiction has to be shaped.

    Yankee Girl is the book that hews closest to the events of my life.  The first draft was around 400 pages.  I included every detail and incident that happened when I moved to Mississippi as a fifth grader.  While I wrestled to get this sprawling mess into something that resembled a story, I learned a cardinal rule of fiction writing:  Just because something happened, doesn't mean it is important to the story.  For example, your Irish setter may have been in the room when you had a monumental fight with your best friend.  You may have been wearing a pink sweatshirt and matching high tops.  Unless your dog plays an active part in the scene (she jumps on your friend to break up the fight) or what you wear is essential to the character,  these are details that can be cut. They clutter your story.

     Or, as one of my mentors at Vermont College told me over and over, "Because it 'really happened that way' is not a good enough reason to include it in your story."

     She usually followed this admonition with "How does (this detail, character, plot point) move the story along?"  The answer was usually "It doesn't."  And another page of perfectly good but pointless prose would disappear into the "Delete and Save" file.

   I have yet to write a story beginning with a character totally imaginary. I have edged a bit away from the side of the pool, venturing deeper into the wholly fictional end of writing. My current work-in-progress is based on an event that happened to someone my daughter knows.  She doesn't know him well, or any of the details of what "really" happened.  It doesn't matter.  My mind is creating characters, envisioning scenes and hearing conversations. All of this from the offhand remark "Mom, there's this guy at school who..."

    To celebrate the arrival of Esther's new book, TXTNG MAMA TXTNG BABY, in the warehouse, we are extending our giveaway of the book through August 20, 2013. Click here for details.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


Genetta said...

What a great reminder about story and how fiction can begin with truth but is ultimately molded to serve the story. Thanks Mary Ann!

Margaret Simon said...

That's the best part of writing fiction to me, being able to fictionalize the reality. Using real people to draw from and real events authenticates the writing. Thanks for giving us a peek into your "Where do you get your ideas from."

Linda said...

I'm always very interested to hear where writers get their ideas. Most of what I write has gets its start from my own experiences too, but the great thing about fiction is that I can decide on how the story ends! : )

mary ann rodman said...

Thank you all for your comments, Margaret, you have hit on the best part of writing from "real life" can go back and "fix" the parts you wish had come out differently. That is if your characters allow you to!