June 6, 2019
In real life you can find constant fuel for your writer's imagination.
I've written articles, essays, and books triggered by things I've seen on television or read in magazines. I've used my experience working in a bakery to create realistic scenes in a mystery series where the protagonist worked in a bakery. I've used the real-life personalities of friends and family to help me create believable larger-than-life characters. And I've used funny things from my own life to create humorous moments in stories. Without real life, writers would be in sad shape.
The Pit Falls of Real Life
As much as I appreciate the writer's dance with real life and fiction, I have also seen how easily a writer can tumble into a hole when trying to turn a real-life experience into a story for publication. Part of this comes from a strong desire to capture the real-life event honestly, to make it a true story to the best of the writer's ability. This sounds good. It especially sounds good if you're writing the story for a publisher that buys true stories, like Chicken Soup for the Soul or The Friend. And writing true stories can be great, but it helps to keep certain things in mind.
Memory is an Unreliable Writer
One of the biggest pitfalls of writing from real life is that few of us have eidetic memories. We don't remember exact dialogue, though we may remember generally what we talked about. We don't always remember sensory details. Our memory’s impressions of time are almost dreamlike, being both vague and fluid. And our memories will focus on odd things rather than the specific things that make for a good story. So if we're trying to reproduce memory, we tend to have rambling accounts full of vague detail and distraction. All of this is an issue, because true stories are much like fictional stories in that they have to work as stories before anything else. And like fictional stories, true stories benefit from sensory detail, dialogue, and purposeful action. If your fictional story doesn't feel purposeful, then it may be a warm memory for you, but it won't be a good story.
But if you add stuff to your memory, it isn't true anymore, right? Well, see, that's where writing from life becomes tricky. Have you ever read memoirs and were amazed by how specifically the writers remember dialogue? If they didn't, they remembered the general idea of the conversation or the conversational topic, and then they re-created the dialogue. The created dialogue is drawn from:
(1) their specific knowledge of that person in the memory and how that person thought and spoke, and
(2) the purposeful direction of the story.
For instance, suppose you want to write about the time you smuggled a puppy into the house and managed to keep it secret for days before you had to come clean. Now, you don't remember the exact dialogue that occurred when your little sister found out what you were doing, but you remember your sister, generally. And you almost certainly remember the emotion of the moment. Use those two tools to create dialogue that feels true and resonated with you as truth. It may not be completely accurate, but that's the nature of memory. But if it feels true, it'll work for the true story based on the event.
Publishers recognize the importance of this. Take, for instance, the guidelines for The Friend Magazine: "Stories must be based on actual events. Dialogue and other minor details may be fictionalized." In other words, the dialogue and details come from your general knowledge of the people and places, and not necessarily from your specific memory of the event. For instance, you may know that it was summer vacation when you smuggled the puppy home, but you don't have any specific memory about the weather, you could still include details of the heat in the house or the grass needing to be mowed that come from your general memories of your childhood summers.
Real Life is Cluttered, Story Cannot Be
Let's think again about the true story of the smuggled puppy. What if you remember these things during those days of puppy smuggling:
• your older sister sprained her ankle
• your mom took her car to a car wash and was convinced that it was scratched in the process
• your dad shaved off his moustache, which creeped you out because he'd always had a moustache.
Now, all of those events happened during the days of puppy smuggling so a "true" story has to include them all, right? Not really. You would pick and choose those events that work with the purpose of your account. Did your mom's distress over the damaged car and the disappearance of the mustache contribute to her not noticing the puppy? If so, that might go into the story. Were you roped into riding along when your sister was taken to the doctor over her leg, leaving you to fret the whole time about whether the puppy was being discovered while you were away? Then it might go in. But if the events don't affect the main purpose of the story in a meaningful way, then you'll need to leave them out.
So, in a way, these two things push and pull against one another. Put in what's true and needful, even if it doesn't come from specific memories of the moment. Take out what doesn't serve the story narrative, even if it does come from the specific memories of the moment. You may remember that you had a cold sore, which annoyed you because it was in the middle of summer heat, but if it didn't affect the story at all, you wouldn't include that detail.
Does the Event Have a Theme?
Successful fiction demonstrates truth. It is often about how challenge and conflict lead to change and growth in characters. A character might become a better friend, or at least gain insight into what true friendship really is. A character might begin to understand others more complexly. A character might begin to understand himself more complexly. A character might make a change. All of these often lead us to understand the theme of the fictional story, which is the basic truth it illustrates. A theme might be something like, "the best way to make a friend is to be one" or "honesty is the best policy" or "people will always surprise you." Themes can be incredibly serious or really quite light, but they'll always be there. This is also the case with publishable true stories. The event you choose to capture in the story and the way the people in the story respond to the event will have a theme as well.
For instance, you may decide to recount the time your father announced the family was joining a beach clean-up effort. Maybe you remember being less than thrilled to give up a fun Saturday for a hot, sweaty day of picking up gross stuff on the beach. Or maybe you were quite positive about the experience, but your sibling thought it was the end of all things good. And the day had its challenges, but in the end, it made you realize something important about giving back to the community, or personal responsibility, or even the value of having a sibling, even when they can be a jerk sometimes. If the event didn't offer any kind of insight or personal growth, it's probably also not a great memory to turn into a publishable story. It may be a lovely memory to capture in words and share with your family, but it must go beyond your specific family and illustrate something enduring to work for publication.
So dig into your memories with theme in mind. Do you have any stories that illustrate something beyond the actual events, something of value for every reader? If so, you may have a memory that will make a great true story. But keep in mind that you'll need the elements of story (dialogue, action, specific detail) to make the story work. And you'll need the focus that a fiction writer applies to extraneous events––they must work with the story or be removed. If you keep that trifecta of good true story telling in mind, you just may find the perfect memory that opens the door to publication for you.
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work here.