When writing inflicts collateral damage on real life

Garth Nix gave a fabulous speech a few years back about how writers take kernels of reality — images, emotions, events, people — and spin them into fiction.  No longer recognizable (usually) because they are  both more vivid and raw than reality was and also deeply interwoven into the narrative, these kernels take on a life of their own.  But they retain the smells and sounds of truth and that is what enables a skilled writer to evoke an emotional response in a reader.

An example:  Last week I worked on a fight scene that is built around a fight I narrowly avoided when I tried to intervene in a domestic dispute between two strangers.  There were lots of reasons I should have walked away from that situation, but I didn’t partly because I wanted to help and partly because I was an angry young woman with something to prove. I drew on those feelings to write the scene, and I hope that it makes the reader believe in my character’s reasons for getting involved.  I want them to feel like her choices were inevitable and if they had been in her shoes, they would have done the same things.

Cool, right?

What’s not so cool is when there is blow-back.

Sometimes the fiction bleeds back into real life.  Last year, I was working on a young adult novel that centers around the unlikely friendship of a fifteen-year-old boy and an eleven-year-old girl brought together by shared tragedy.  Their tragedy is one I’ve lived.  When I showed the first chapters to my critique group, Nicole asked me if I was really ready to write that book.  Was I ready, she pushed, to feel what I would have to feel?  Could I take going back to that place of broken-ness day after day after day?  What about critique on something so dear and so raw?  Would I be able to handle it?  Ultimately I decided that I was ready for it, but I definitely spent much of the year draped in a touch of depression.

Now I’m writing an impulsive, reckless, limit-pushing heroine.  To get Mara right, I’m drawing on what good, responsible kids would call their “gap” year between high school and college.  For me, it was twelve transgression-filled months, which I’m damn lucky to have survived at all.  (Not getting my ass-kicked in the aforementioned fight being one example of many dangerous situations I landed myself in.)

Now I’ve grown up and made good and am generally a respectable citizen, but writing Mara means digging up the dirt and drawing on it.  I’ve abandoned the indie folk rock I usually listen to and have switched to much more hard-charging, punk inspired music.  I’m reading edgier fiction and watching edgier movies.  It’s all supposed to make my writing better and more real, but Mara’s impulsiveness is rubbing off on me.  I’m pushing more limits than I usually would.  I’m taking more risks.

So far, there’s been no serious collateral damage…  except the blue hair.  Thanks, Mara!


4 thoughts on “When writing inflicts collateral damage on real life

  1. I’ve run into this recently with a reader asking if some of the things in my second book actually happened to me. Not the way she’d think, but it shows the emotional content is working.

    It’s interesting how our characters and their lives affect us as we’re writing. Sometimes it’s hard to separate ourselves from our fictional world.

  2. I generally try to avoid writing about real events, but I use them to fuel some scenes. We need to draw on our experiences in order to make the stories feel real.
    I like the idea of using music to get in the mood and inspire the wrting.
    Thanks, Amber.

  3. I don’t write (yet). This I do know, in my life (before I hit ~ 30yo) at times was stranger than fiction. Still occasionally is. If I drew from my life experiences, I’d have to really change reality, the setting, who are the “players”, … the most recent one I can’t, so it wouldn’t be used as evidence against me in court (statute of limitations will run out in about 4 years — it was righteous, that’s why the cops didn’t care that I walked away).

    This I do know, music is powerful. So powerful, that when you get it in your head and have a goal, you’ll accomplish what your want/need in one quarter to one third less time than everyone expected (pending people get the hell out of your way or turn to help you). Something learned from a (Ret) Navy Chief, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.” How you get what you want to accomplish is yours to do how you want. Outright theft will be found out, yet re-appropriation is not dishonest (being that it is acknowledged). Use anything that keeps/gets you moving forward/toward something.

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