Oh, the pain! How many times have I thought life was cruel, unbearable even? Over and over I’ve been through it, the proverbial mill, and come out the other side scarred and hugging to my breast the treasure of a great story. I couldn’t always appreciate the gold thus mined. When life slips a writer a valentine, it’s a little more like a stiletto to the heart than a box of chocolates. Or maybe a knuckle sandwich. Still, once the bandages come off, you’re in possession of a rare and priceless nugget of literary glitter.
How to use it is the problem. Drawing from life, especially from those dramatic moments that are hard to look at twice, can give your writing a depth and breadth that no concocted mayhem can hope to rival. I find that I have to let the more painful valentines cook for a while before I can bear to use them. Sometimes years worth of simmering is required to make them safe to handle. I’ve got a pot full of the things, and every so often I ladle one out and add it to a story (sometimes it IS the story), and it’s perfect. It makes my readers squirm and gasp. Their discomfort is ecstasy to them – we all know how much we enjoy gawking at the train wreck of some poor character’s life, easy in the knowledge that it isn’t real. Except when it is. And as a fiction writer, I can lie and lie and tell the truth, and lie some more, and nobody is the wiser. I love to throw myself to the wolves.
Caution must be exercised so that characters drawn from life aren’t too recognizable. When you tell the world, via fictional characters, about Uncle Jerry’s secret vice or Mom’s dark side, the last thing you want is to be mobbed and flogged at the family reunion. Fictionalization means doing a little creative retooling on the truth, using the best bits and making up the rest. Even making composite characters from several real people. Please, if you value your peaceful existence, do not drop a real person into your story, warts thinly veiled with a new name. Don’t feel you must cleave to the truth, even if you are telling your own story, when your purpose is to write fiction. The truth is only a scaffold for your imagination to play on. If you want to write an expose, you’ll probably need a lawyer.
That old chestnut, ‘write what you know’, can sometimes cause panic in writers who live quiet, uneventful lives. Like me. What do I know? I live in Pennsylvania farm country, I don’t travel, the most exciting thing around here is when a bear mauls the bird feeders. But we all ‘know’ our own pain. None of us escapes life’s little valentines, and conflict makes great plot. There’s plenty to go around, even on the farm. So the next time you take one right in the heart, write it down.