A poet I know puts the following statement at bottom of all his emails: “I’m a writer. Anything you say can and will be used in a story.” When I was in book publishing, my first boss was the editor Robie Macauley, former editor of the Kenyon Review and then fiction editor for Playboy, back when the magazine decided to class up its writing. Robie used to tell stories about the famous authors he knew, and one story was about inviting John Updike to his dinner party and then having the dialogue from the party show up in one of Updike’s novels a year or two later.
Some writers can’t, or don’t want to, break free from the reality of their life—that’s what they want to write about. One of the most famous examples of that approach in current literature is novelist Terry McMillan. I know that her first novel, which I acquired and edited for Houghton Mifflin, was based on her life (a shout out to my friend Dell Hammond, who found Terry’s manuscript on the “slush pile” and insisted I read it). Terry’s novel, Mama, was so close to reality that her former boyfriend sued her for the way he was represented in the novel. He lost, but wouldn’t even have had a case if the fiction hadn’t been awfully close to the reality. From what I’ve read about Terry and her work, she has continued to replicate her life experiences in her novels.
Many of us writers do this to one extent or another. We use things that have happened or been said in our own lives, and, when we can, we cadge things from other people’s lives—friends, strangers, stories in the news, historical events, folktales, myths, legends. A smart writer is always on the lookout for good material. And it’s interesting how different it is to use something from one’s own life as opposed to something from someone else’s.
I actually find using bits and pieces from sources other than my own life more enjoyable. Although there is an immediacy about events that you actually experienced and people you actually knew, there is also a limitation: it’s hard to imagine them doing or being something you never knew them to be. And that includes yourself and your own experiences. The better you know something or someone, the more difficult it is to let the imagination run off on its own.
Recently, I saw a teenager fishing over the railing beside a pond right in the middle of “downtown” Easthampton, Massachusetts. I wondered why a teenager, at an age notorious for wanting to be left alone, would do something (especially something that most teenagers would not find cool) in such a public spot, when he could have simply walked to the other side of the pond and been alone. Imagining what he was doing there inspired a 10-minute play that involved his being approached by a girl who was interested in him. Since I knew absolutely nothing about this boy, I could imagine every detail of his life and personality.
But I also like to start with a “piece” of someone or an element from something that actually happened to me and then let the “what if” kick in. What if my friend had actually left his wife when he started that relatively innocent flirtation with a co-worker? What if that peaceful demonstration in college had turned violent and I’d been confronted with a billy-club-waving policeman? With this approach, the reality of the person or situation anchors the fiction that grows out of it. I picture those time lapse photographs of crystals forming on a rock and gradually growing into long, glittering shapes.
In the end, it’s what you’re comfortable working with. One time it may be imagining the world of a stranger. Another time it might be imagining how different a personal experience could have turned out if things had gone another direction. It’s a rich world out there—and inside yourself. Stay tuned to it, and you’ll never run out of things to write about.