This week I had an email conversation with a college boyfriend I haven’t spoken to in years. (OK Greg, I warned you. Writers use everything. You are now in my archives.) That got me thinking about how our past informs our present and our future, how as a writer everything I’ve ever experienced is in my work whether I mean for it to be or not, whether I realize it or not. Little things, like the crooked smile of someone once in my life, or big things, like the day my father left. Sweet memories of citizenship awards and hurtful ones of being teased for wearing glasses when I was only in kindergarten. Encouraging words from my second grade teacher about a story I had written, and harsh ones from the third grade teacher who made me stand in a closet until I almost wet my pants. It’s all there, somewhere, in the story of the little girl who is afraid of basements, or the boy who is bullied, or the man whose wife leaves him. In the sun glinting off the water like broken glass, in the acorns crunching under tires echoing those in the driveway of my childhood home.
I think writing is a sort of mental archeology. You dig for artifacts, most often not knowing exactly what you’re looking for, but gently dusting the dirt from memories, bringing them into the open for others to see. Usually you have no idea yourself what you’ve found, only that it looks interesting and might be something special. A smell, a sound, a song. I try not to think too hard about the context of the memories, only the feelings they invoke. To me the memories serve not to tell my story, but to tell a universal story, a story that others can connect with.
Because who really cares about my dad leaving, or my citizenship award, or that I listened to James Taylor and Jimmy Buffet and David Bowie in college? But give me a character and a few of those telling details, and I might come up with a story much more interesting than my own.
The worst thing I can hear from a writer when defending something in workshop is “but it really happened.” If I want to read a memoir, I’ll read a memoir. And it better damned well be interesting. But if I want to read fiction, I want a story, not an autobiography. While I believe that we use everything in our past as material, it should be used as atmosphere, not the story itself.
So dig deeply, but carefully, and treasure what you unearth as unique material that only you have access to. Just don’t bore me with the history of the artifact. Give me a story.