I’ve talked about this one before – how much of what I write is based on real life, how much isn’t – but the topic came up again today, so I thought it would be fun to revisit.
First, a quick shout-out to the students of Olympus High who attended my career day sessions. Wow – I was caught off-guard by how many of you came, and even more by your hospitality and your great questions. And thanks for not booing at me for going to a rival high school.
Without really talking about “Where do you get your ideas,” I managed to spend a bit of time addressing this topic during the two sessions. One of my favorite parts about writing is being able to draw on the things I observe, and then incorporating them into my writing. It’s true, but it isn’t real – if that makes sense. Most writers, I believe, are working toward a level of truth in their writing, without writing autobiography. Though I’ve had my fair share of interesting events both tragic and funny in my life, I don’t really have a compelling need to write about my life. I will, however, borrow gratuitously from it if it fits a story I’m working on.
My first kiss was no where near as good, nor as funny, as my character Mattie’s was in My Brother the Dog, so despite how many people think that was a story about me, it really wasn’t. It was based in part on my mother and my uncle, and it drew in aspects of me, my kids, my friends, and my observations. My mother really did tell my uncle Don to stand on the front porch of her friend’s house and hold his own leash, and my uncle really did obey. Everything else is a product of my own making.
In The Deepest Blue, Michael wants to have his dad’s girlfriend Maggie adopt him rather than return to live with his crazy mother. Both of my two oldest children have asked their step-parent to adopt them, but not because of a death. I did use the emotions and experiences of losing my dad to help with the emotional truth of the story, but again, the story isn’t about me. Michael is partly my oldest daughter, partly my son, but not based on either of them completely.
Now I’m working on a Young Adult novel entitled The Guide to Everything I Should Have Known (Before I Got Knocked Up). The main character here is Robin. She learns that she pregnant the summer before her junior year and decides to give her baby up for adoption. This is an experience I most certainly know nothing about with the exception that I was adopted myself (as was my husband, my sister, my sister-in-law, several close friends, and the daughter of one of my best girlfriends).
I have a lot of resources to draw from in order to make the story real, but the story won’t be about any one of these people specifically.
There are exceptions, of course. In SlipStream, a S/F YA novel I’m about half-way finished with, a character named The Director is loosely based on a former boss of mine of whom I don’t have nice things to say. In The Deepest Blue, Michael’s mother is an amalgam of my husband’s ex-wife, and my ex-husband’s second wife. Another novel in process (with the working title St. Mary’s of Bethlehem) features a nasty-tempered biology teacher who bears a striking resemblance to the one my oldest two kids had in high school.
Never cross a writer.
I would never name these individuals by name, nor give enough information for anyone other than me to know whom the characters are based on. But it wouldn’t matter either way. Friends and family have a tendency to read your work with an eye toward identifying themselves or others they know. Acquaintances are just sure that you’ve written about your self, and people who are paranoid think you’ve written about them.
You can’t possibly win with that last group.
Sometimes we write the truth as we observe it. Sometimes we write the truth as would like it to be. And sometimes we write the truth as it really was or is. I’ll refer again to my favorite Emily Dickinson poem:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant-
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind-