Saturday, 5 May 2012

Just because it's real doesn't mean it's good

I've been thinking about the process of writing fiction from real-life experiences this week. I mean the kind of writing that is rooted in you, based on the big things that have happened in your life. It's not exactly memoir, or life-writing, because you dress the events as fiction, embellish them maybe, but its emotional core comes from you.

This isn't something I do a lot of now, in fact I don't think I've written fiction about any life events for several years, but I did when I started writing back in 2005-ish. I think it's natural for new writers to do this when they're finding a way and unearthing what they want to write about, but the more stuff I wrote, and the more I read of others, the less I drew directly on my own experiences - in an obvious way, at least. 

There are 2 stories from my past that I tried to create fiction around but ran into difficulties with. I've blogged about one of them before - here - and the hallelujah moment when I started re-telling that story from a different POV, creating a much better piece. I've been wondering if I could have the same success with the other story. 

I started it in 2005, and reworked, edited, added to, and took words away from it endlessly over the next few years, certain there was something in it. It just never quite worked, and it ended in a flat way. I was hesitant about how to finish it, and also, if it was a story I should let people see.

It's about a girl meeting her Dad for the first time, as I did, when I was 10. I'd had some contact with my Dad until I was 3 or 4, but then nothing until he sent me a birthday card on my tenth birthday. I replied, and that began our getting to know each other, until his untimely death when I was 16.

The story focused on that first meeting, the weirdness of it, the power struggle, the way the girl didn't want to make the moment easy for her Dad. The fact that she didn't know him, but he felt he knew her. It was heightened, but rooted in how I felt, not just that day, but in the early days of having a Dad when I was pretty sure I'd never have one, or need one.

I got to know my Dad over the next 6 years and we found ways of getting on and ways of arguing, which is pretty normal I'd say. I always felt like he died just when we were accepting each other as adults, and we would have had our hey-day, I thought, in the years that should have followed.

But the story I told was the one of that first afternoon. The feelings are mine. The perspective is that of a 10 year old girl trying to be an adult. It's easy to see why I revisited that event when I began writing. It was a pivotal time. But as I said, it didn't get published, it didn't ever work properly. Then when I was a little more skilled a few years later, and I might have been able to rework it, there were other concerns about trying to get it published.

One was that my Dad's Mum, my Grandma, was still alive, as were his sisters. In 2005 or 2006 I didn't have a blog, and I didn't try to get stuff published online. If it had been accepted back then, the story most likely would have gone into a small press anthology, and would have only been accessed by strangers, or the people I showed it to.

But over the years with the increase in online publishing, and my own online 'presence', I knew that publishing it might mean there was a chance my Dad's family might read it. I knew the story was a heightened reality, and that after the first testy few years of getting to know my Dad things evened out, but others may not see that, and I was concerned it might have been seen as a disrespectful move, even though the feelings were mine. So it stayed where it was.

Until this week when I opened it up for a look (I do that every so often - then think 'no, leave it' and close it again) and I found my hands hovering over the keys to change a line or 2, and I realised I had some impetus to rewrite it, not just tinker with it, but cut a lot of the lines and change the tone completely.

I still wasn't sure that it'd be a story to have published (if someone wanted it), but I liked that I was changing it in a bigger way than usual, and I felt a little bit of excitement similar to when I rewrote that other big true event  - and I could see more clearly the things that were wrong with it, as a piece of writing.

So the point of all this (is there one?) is that I'm still not sure I have a story that deserves to be read. Sadly my Grandma and one of my Aunts have passed away in recent years, so there is less of a feeling that I would need to explain to anyone that this is just a snapshot of a relationship rather than the definition of it.

I just don't know that the piece holds up as a story - and I guess this is the point - just because something happened to you doesn't mean it's a story. It will feel like one, because it's yours, but if you're thinking about other people reading it, possibly editors saying 'yes' to it, it is something else separate to you and must hold up and earn its place.

I will most likely let it rest a while now, and come back to it with fresher eyes in a week or 2. If it still feels not-right, I'll let it go again. Maybe not forever. It might find its way into a bigger story, or my autobiography (eyes widen slightly at thoughts of best seller autobiography and poster of self in Waterstones…)

It's been a good experience revisiting it, and it got me thinking and reflecting on this writing journey, and the things I write, or don't write about now.
What about you? I'd love to hear your experiences of writing from true events.


Rachel Fenton said...

The only time I tried to write exactly about an experience it failed spectacularly.
"Alchemy Hour" and "Rogue Trading" are the only other two attempts at imposing reality on a fictional context and I think they worked - probably because They were solely my stories and what I chose to tell of them didn't impact on anyone else. I didn't try to stay true to the stories in their entirety; I was able to judge what to leave out, where to place the fact and add fiction to make a better story. Emotional distance is key.

Very interesting that you re-work your story like that, and even if you don't publish it, it's obvioulsy something calling you to write it and that's as important.

Karen Jones said...

I've had a fair bit of success writing from true events. With 'Natural Instincts' I took something that happened when I was at school and used it as the basis of what was a mainly fictional piece. It was highly commended in a comp and then published.

Similarly, in 'The Upside-down Jesus', I used several things that happened in my childhood and stitched them together into a story that also did well in competition and was published.

I think the key is to use true events as a starting point rather than to just tell it how it happened and call it fiction. When you're too close to something, I think it shows, so you have to have enough distance to be able to use the event rather than just relate how it actually happened.


Teresa Stenson said...

Hello, and thank you, Rachel and Karen (yes I *do* sound like I'm running a radio phone-in).

You both use the word 'distance' and I think that's definitely essential. And I guess you also need a bit of 'closeness' as well, or the ability to conjure the feelings you had around an event.

I didn't mention it in the post itself but I made a note when I was drafting it out about how 'complete' an event is will have an impact on if you can create something around it. I mean if it's in the past and finished, as opposed to something you're still processing - on a conscious level at least.

When do we stop 'processing'? Oh that's another blog post on someone else's blog, I reckon!

Dan Purdue said...

I suppose it's a case of either allowing something that happened to you to provide a background for a different story, as Karen did with Natural Instincts, or taking something self-contained - a personal epiphany of some sort, perhaps - and fictionalising it enough so you can let somebody else read it without feeling you're standing in front of them naked.

I can't think of a way to phrase this that doesn't sound awfully pretentious, but I'd say there's a difference between something "real" and something "true". I think the story of mine that best fits the subject of your post is "One Street Corner Too Soon", in that it starts from a situation I've been in and then heads off into fictional territory, but the basic 'truth' at its core is unchanged - i.e. that rejection hurts. I think because I had tweaked the story enough to make it "somebody else's" it lost the 'confessional' edge that would have put me off letting other people read it, and - to be honest - made it a better story.

And I think you're right, it probably does help if it's an event/situation you regard as been over and done with, for the moment at least.

Teresa Stenson said...

Hey Dan. Yeah, the real vs. true thing is a good point. Not too pretentious (though I know why you thought it might sound that way - reminds me of 'White Men Can't Jump' : "Yeah, I know you're listening to me, but are you *hearing* me???")

I've said before that One Street Corner feels like a true story, probably down to that truth you mention about rejection, and because the writing is very grounded. I think Karen also has a knack of taking real life events and writing successful stories around them.

I'm just thinking about the writing of my Bridport story, Seaside Cafe. The feelings, and some of the actions, of the main character were largely my own, or ones I had been through a few years ago, but I put her in a different place and situation. So I was maybe applying that 'truth' to a story that was separate from me, perhaps.

Then I added some things I'd heard during one of my eavesdropping expeditions and I was all set. Magique.