Posted in News on August 13, 2012
I’m reading an awesome book called Becoming Faulkner: The art and life of William Faulkner by Philip Weinstein. In it, as in many looks into the lives of creative geniuses, I see an unbreakable bond between a author’s personal life and art. Mining real life seems to be a common practice of established writers. And is there any doubt why? What we know intimately, what we have strong feelings for or against, not only shapes our views of ourselves and the world we live in, but also shapes what we hope to become and how we hope others will see us in retrospect and as yet unseen days. Our reality can differ from other realities. Our memories can differ from the other’s memories though we saw the same thing. I believe that the lifeblood of story is inescapably tied to our life experiences crossbreeding with our imagination.
By the time we’re adults we’ve dealt with, savored, and struggled against every emotion. We build up memories both factual and fictitious. We embellish the most outrageous moments we’ve seen or heard about, and we relish the mundane, when things were simple play, a gearing up for adult life and our place in the world. We store away so much that sometimes we forget, and it takes a trigger, a certain smell, a certain turn of phrase, a certain hue of the evening sky to recall with incredible clarity a moment once lived and now lost to us. Until those moments–people, emotions and situations are dredged from our psyches, of whole cloth, inseparable from who we are or who we were–they’re useless.
What can we mine from real life for our fiction? The easy part is knowing our own motives if we’re honest with ourselves. What’s not easy, at least at first, is creating characters who are strange to us, who act different from us, who believe things that we deem crazy, childish, or wrong. But that is where we can grow so much as writers. To grow beyond our limited, sole selves. To turn away from the comfortable and familiar and dip our toes in the water of someone else’s experience. To reach out and try to understand the reasonings of someone else, especially someone vastly different, brings with it a gift we can receive no other way. What gift? The gift of insight, of exploration, of freedom and understanding and compassion.
What can’t we mine from real life to use in our fiction? I don’t see any restrictions. I think it’s all fair game. Some of it will hurt to dig up though. Sometimes we enjoy denial about our own actions, justifying them, or pretending they don’t exist. Sometimes we do the same for those we care about. But man, do the truths as we know them, and the truths others know for themselves, enrich our work.
Mining real life is also about connecting again with ourselves. In such a mad world, possessed and obsessed with getting ahead or being noticed, we lose something of ourselves in the simple striving to keep up with the rat race. Mining real life makes us be still and listen, to analyze and feel, to be a conduit for what has happened and to bring that thing, be it an emotion, an image accompanying it, whatever, to life.
How can you put this into practice? Let’s use a simple exercise.
Daydream on your past. As you remember, make notes of how each thing below made you feel and why it made you feel that way.
List one highlight from your childhood that you found touching.
List one downbeat from your childhood that you found horrifying.
List one highlight from young adulthood that you found exciting.
List one downbeat from young adulthood that you found confusing.
List one highlight from adulthood that you found extremely satisfying.
List one downbeat from adulthood that you found depressing.
The beauty of mining from real life is that the textures we can steal from it to apply to our current work is limitless. But be warned, like real mining, it takes an incredible amount of work and it can be a dirty job. But the fortune it provides once exhumed and refined is well worth it.
Shameless plug: We’re nearing the final chapters of my free serial novel The Collected Songs of Sonnelion, which you can read on Darkfuse or Issuu. You’ll want to catch up before time runs out and it’s taken off the web!