September 13th, 2010

Reality: not a good idea

Years ago, I knew some people very distantly–“saw around” is probably closer than “knew”–who struck me as interesting. Then we had a series of interactions, very brief, that made me intensely curious about how they could possibly relate to each other, let alone get along as well as they seemed to. They treated each other (and me) very strangely, and while it was fine to treat me any way they liked, since they never had to talk to me again, I couldn’t imagine how they could stick with each other like that. The whole thing was very very odd.

Afterwards, as we all made good on that opportunity not to speak again, I thought about those folks a lot, and began to try to work out possible reasons for them to have acted as they had. I started filling in motivations and also backgrounds, childhoods, hometowns, central people in their lives, etc. Finally, I came up with a rather plausible world and lives for these acquaintances, whom by that time I had lost track of entirely in the real world. Mind you, I had no notion I was putting together the *right* or even probable background for these people; I just wanted something logical to quiet my mind.

Once I had that logical thing, I realized what it was was a story, of the sort I write, so I wrote it. Through many drafts, it shed almost all of its antecdents in reality , and took on more and more of my imaginings. Finally I published it–and I think it’s one of my favourite pieces–with only a few bits of physical description linking it to the original “characters” who inspired it. I’m quite certain not even they would recognize themselves.

This all took years, because I have an incredibly hard time working from reality: I have to almost entirely digest and regurgitate something in my own way before I can write it. I have to make it my own, which means throwing out 99% of the reality it came from, and just keeping some tiny nugget that makes the connection for me, though it’s likely entirely lost on the reader. So that’s my process, if you are curious, but that’s not the point of this post.

The point of this post is that, a few weeks ago, owing to the wild randomness of the web and people’s sense of privacy or lack thereof, I found out what was going on all those years ago. Not quite all of it, mind you, and not what anyone thought of me personally (though I can guess), but quite a bit of the emotional background and actual events leading up to that period, enough to pretty much know why it all happened. I also found out, in broad strokes, almost everything that happened to one of the characters in the years since.

I was so wrong. SO wrong, about everything. I am trying to keep this as vague as possible so that no one will ever work out who I mean, but I do have to say: I would never ever have guessed the role of the ukelele in all this. True!

And then I freaked out slightly, and am perhaps still doing so. It’s hard to pin down why. I don’t care that I was wrong, because I never set out to be *right*–I just wanted a story that would satisfy my own desire for logic and closure and narrative. It’s more like in those time-traveller books when a self from the past or future comes along and bothers its present incarnation. I made up these fictional characters to take the place of the real people in my mind–the real people went *away* and were not interested in explaining themselves to me, so I replaced them. And now the really people are *back*, insisting on their real-ness, disrupting the space-time continuum.

I don’t like it.

This is why 90% of my stories are made up out of the whole cloth–less interference. But even when you just take a grain of real-life, it can still mess with your head. I am not a journalist, and don’t owe a moment’s thought to empirical accuracy–fiction writers are all about emotional truth, however it might be told. But it is bad for my brain, not to mention my morale, to have competing versions of my work show up with greater truth claims than I could ever muster.

Oh fellow writers, how do you deal with this?

6 Responses to “Reality: not a good idea”

  • Amy says:

    This may only work for a wacko like me, but I like to think of “reality” as less of a rigid concept. More of a suggestion, really. Like what happened in your story is one version of reality, and what happened to those people is another, and there are thousands of other versions that exist in the universe, and none is more “real” than the other. Okay, yeah, that sounds crazy. But just think… there’s six billion people in the world. Your version of the truth exists out there for one of them, surely.


  • August says:

    Rebecca: I take an approach that’s both similar and different to the one you described. When I take things (people, situations) from reality, it’s almost always because I don’t really understand what’s going on with them, and I want to understand the issues rather than the specific events.

    A good example:

    Years back, my long-time girlfriend cheated on me, and I couldn’t wrap my head around it, by which I mean I knew the sequence of events, but had no idea what was motivating all the various players, and there were emotions it brought up in me that I didn’t understand. (The things like “hurt” and “angry”, yes, but other stuff that didn’t follow as logically.)

    So I wrote a whole bunch of stories about infidelity, many of them from the point of view of the person being unfaithful. The early stories all followed a structure that was pretty faithful to what happened to me, because I was looking at what happened and trying to extrapolate first causes, sort of a thing. And the more I felt I understood the mindset (not my ex’s specific mindset, but a potential, real-feeling mindset of someone being unfaithful), then the more I could branch out to other structures and sets of situations. And the more I examined the strange bits of how I felt, the more I could see where those things came from, and I could change the situations and still make nuanced judgements about the fallout without having to make it the same as what I had felt.

    A few of those stories could probably be salvaged for publication, but most of them were never intended to be that polished. The point is that I can now write about infidelity without having to write about my experience of having been cheated on, but if I *hadn’t* started with that, then all I’d be able to say about infidelity (through fiction, that is) is that it’s a series of events that don’t always make sense or follow one another logically. And while that’s sometimes true, it’s very limiting and not particularly interesting.

    Whether or not I’m being true or sensitive to the ‘real’ people is entirely irrelevant to me. I go at these lived experiences as mercilessly as possible so that eventually I can write about these issues without having to write about them (the real people) at all.

    Perhaps I’m just not good enough at thinking about human relationships in abstract terms, so I have no choice but to draw on my lived experiences.


  • Rebecca says:

    Yeah, variations on reality makes good sense to me, thanks for putting it that way, Amy.

    And August, I agree that writing about things is a way of forcing yourself to think about them really hard, and eventually understand them enough to own them (as imaginary events). But I doubt I could do that for myself with big traumas–I don’t think I could get enough of the “personal” smell off them and make them larger than me and my problems. I know many people who have been very successful in working that way, though. One needs a very good sense of distance!


  • August says:

    Big traumas are the only things that interest/effect (affect? always get that one wrong) me enough to look that closely at them. (Secondarily, I find this kind of writing therapeutic, although that’s not really why I do it.) If I’m too detached I wind up playing intellectual games instead, like writing fake encyclopedia entries about people with tumors in their bums that predict the future (no, really).


  • AMT says:

    oh my god i must know who and when and so on!

    … i know i can’t. but the ukelele part is killing me.


  • Rebecca says:

    AMT, I know, right? You could never put a major ukelele plot twist in fiction, because it’s so obviously “wacky” and made up. But people are allowed to have ukelele plot twists in their *lives,* and no giant editor comes down from the sky and tells them to buy a damn guitar!!


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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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