Wednesday, March 2, 2011

My friend says I used her -- writing tip

From the e-mail:

Question: I wrote a coming-of-age short story about two young girls on a trip together. My best friend, on reading it, said, "All you did was change the names and places -- that was US when we went to Vermont in 8th grade!" I do vaguely recall our trip to Vermont, now. But it was nowhere in my mind when I wrote the story. And I didn't think the second girl's character was at all like my friend. But physically there are similarities. How did that happen?

Answer: My guess is that you pulled it somewhere from your subconscious without knowing it.

In the beginning, I often based my own fiction on family history, but it was fiction. Almost all the stories in my first collection, THE DROWNED LAND, were loosely based on family folktales. But still...

Once I wrote a story about my great-uncle, Henry, who had taken on a man’s work at age 14 aboard a Chesapeake Bay dredge boat, back in the 1890's. I knew that, and that his goal then was to earn enough money to marry his sweetheart, which he did by age 16. But the story of their courtship, and that they subsequently lived together for 75 years, was all I knew when I began to write.

I surmised that a youngster would be hazed by the older crew members and wrote that part with no difficulty. Then I planned for Henry to do something to “prove himself" worthy of a full-grown man's wages.

I agonized for weeks, invented storms and tossed them out, bar fights and so on were also discarded. The man I knew was not a big man and though he must have been physically strong in order to do the work, I doubted if that gentle man had ever fought with anyone.

Finally, I settled on a fire in the hold of the boat. Henry duly distinguished himself by putting out the blaze, though his hands were burned in the process.

When my mother read the story, she handed it to me with disgust, saying, “Can’t you get anything right? It wasn’t Uncle Henry who burned his hands! It was Uncle Lou!”

I was absolutely certain I had made the whole thing up and had no conscious memory of anyone’s burned hands. But they must have been absorbed by osmosis and crept out on the page, as big a surprise to me as anyone. Regardless of whose hands had actually been burned, the dramatic moment worked in the story and “A Man’s Share” was one of the first stories I ever sold.

The ways of a writer's creativity are many and varied. Tell your friend that you didn't consciously "use" her, but that her friendship and the trip you took together must have had great meaning for you on some level, to have resurfaced in your story.

The words flow and we write them down and pray that they'll never stop coming. But normally we have very little idea where they come from. Inspiration? The muse? There are all kinds of theories and explanations for the creative act of writing.

But in the final analysis, I suspect the place it comes from may be as varied as the number of writers.

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