As I sit devouring the new anthology Stories, edited by king of kings Neil Gaiman, I keep coming back to one of the shorter and more thought provoking tales, "A Life in Fictions" by Kat Howard. The heroine's boyfriend happens to be a writer (poor gal) and whenever he writes he scoops up her life as fodder for his work, and she loses track of time and reality as she is sucked into his stories. Each time she emerges from one of his narratives, she has lost a slice of her own identity. Not to ruin the ending, but she ultimately sacrifices herself to exist in a good story. The entire anthology has a vaguely creepy and haunting tone, most of the stuff beautifully written. But as I begin a new story, I realize that the plot and idea are precisely taken from a moment in my son's life. And I wonder if this is always the case. Do we forever borrow or snatch the details and lives of those around us for our works? And if so, are there any dangers in doing this or ultimately should we always write we know? Fact of the matter is, we intimately know the people in our lives.
Borrowing is natural. We watch our crazy uncle Bob who insists on making balloon animals after family funerals to lighten the mood, and of COURSE it will translate into a story. There is a woman down the street who only jogs in three-inch heels and it's impossible not to devour the details. The people will never read the stories and connect that it's them, right? I once saw an interview where JK Rowling mentioned that she'd unconsciously stolen names for her characters in Harry Potter, only realizing afterwards that they were living, breathing individuals now forever preserved in her series. (If there is a Dolores Umbridge out there, yikes, and sorry!) As writers we are natural vacuums who suck up details to populate our works, no matter how great our imaginations may be.
Then we cross the line and put something more intimate in. We divulge someone else's personal moments or feelings, someone who absolutely will read our work and slap us for it. Even if it's flattering, it's still inherently someone else's emotional property. Or alternately we put our own perspective in, and suddenly we're very naked in front of our readers. It's a moment that can't be taken back. And if our perspective changes, if we feel differently down the road, there is no erasing written history. Not all stories get published, of course, but the ones that do will find you again, even fifty years down the road. As a teacher I do take pause from time to time as I write and wonder what would happen if a student read what I'm working on.
My children are still very young, but as a parent I wonder, too. Will my son pick up my latest story and question if in fact I'd managed to grab his life for a minute and use it to further my writing. It's touchy business. There are published stories of mine that contain characters I would rather forget, feelings I'd like to toss away, and details that were just plain stolen.
That being said, I also infuse my stories with the best of my friends and family. I listen to what they say, I think to myself how beautiful and intelligent they are, and I devise characters who can only hope to live up to them. I am deeply touched by things my son says late at night when I tuck him in, things that only a child could say. I am humbled when my husband makes an observation that is quiet and intuitive, and I discreetly hand it off to a character to make the internal dialogue stronger. When my parents are gone, something that I hope will not happen for a very, very long time, I will take comfort in the memories I've snatched and saved. Maybe stealing the details is a very selfish process, one that helps us preserve that in life that is too incredible to just let slip away.
Of course harvesting these details can be a dangerous practice. But it's one nearly impossible to avoid, and the benefits, I believe, far outweigh the hazards.