by Laura Nelson
Photograph: Julian Povey
I’ll make a confession. Some of the richest material for my fiction comes from my own real life experiences.
The night I helped carry home a drunken man lying in my street, the colleague who told me that her brother wanted to be a woman, the barrister who let me read his notes for a case. It’s all precious fodder for my short stories and novels.
But there’s a predicament. Indeed, several of them.
The very fact that these things happened to me presents a variety of difficulties.
First, writing fiction is a dangerous sport. I am constantly seeking out experiences I want to write about. The writer is naturally curious, and this can border on obsession; an addiction to risk-taking situations. I have travelled hundreds of miles across the wilderness in north east Brazil using only a pencil-drawn map that someone gave me. I have waited overnight in dangerous bus stations among possible bandits, drug traffickers and pimps. I have posed as a journalist, pretending to interview a Government Minister’s Private Secretary for a magazine article, purely because I wanted to mine her for information. All for the sake of my fiction.
The second snag with writing about real life is that I re-live past experiences; in other words, it’s counselling for free. But seeing a trained psychiatrist is very different to sitting at home with a laptop. Writing can have a detrimental effect. As I churn the facts around in my head over and over again, I am liable to sink into despair. Some things are best left forgotten, not dragged up to be regurgitated and reprocessed.
Achieving a balance between sanity and insanity is one of the skills a writer must master. I imagine some of the best fiction comes from a writer on the verge of insanity, but she or he must be sufficiently sane to write it and not fall apart. The risk is that negative feelings that accompany writing about bad experiences inhibit the writing itself, instead of fuelling it.
Moods can also swing the other way. Writing is exciting. It can mask a painful experience with a cloud of artificial euphoria. Sometimes, I find myself thinking fondly about someone whom I really should consider as my enemy. If I am attempting to conjure up feelings of love and affection, I will feel like calling up that person and having a good old heart-to-heart. For this reason, I delete all such people from my mobile phone contacts.
Controlling my emotions is an art, just as writing is an art. I write quickly, switch scenes, and try not to wallow. I have learned not to be impetuous. I tell myself that I’m the weird one sitting in my dream world, which is fine, as long as I remember I’m the only one in it.
This keeps me mentally stable, but it doesn’t hamper the guilt. This is the third obstacle. I am a thief – stealing people’s stories and conversations. Can I justify my raiding people of their intimate information? Do I tell them I’m doing it?
Guilt, I find, wastes time. Along with lack of confidence and boredom, guilt is one of the enemies of a writer. I try hard not to feel the guilt and just get on with it.
It’s also a good idea not to tell people that I have used them as research material. This is easy if I don’t know them well, but it sometimes slips out if they’re my friends, as somehow I feel I owe it to them to say it. Which is silly, really. They would probably never know. And how must they feel – to have their personalities ransacked and their privacies invaded? Scrutinised? Analysed? Used?
(This is ironic, because many people ask if my novels are about them, or if they can be in my next piece of fiction. If they thought about it, they would no doubt realise that they would hate it.)
The key trick is disguise. All superficial details must be changed. This also helps with the writing; it flows much better and the outcome is much more fresh when the setting can be visualised differently. After all, it’s the truth that I’m aspiring to, regardless of the trimmings and frills it’s embellished with.
For example: if in real life I visit a stately home, in my fiction I turn it into a castle. If a man I know (and on whom I am basing a character) is short, clean-shaven and untidy, I give the fictional character a moustache and make him tall and immaculately dressed. These details, of course, have the additional benefit of subtly changing the fictional character’s personality – if he likes clothes and being tidy he is going to act, react and speak accordingly – a further camouflage.
Whatever I do, people always ask if my fiction is based on my life. Often, of course, it’s not – I nicked the idea from the newspaper or (in one of those rare moments we all like to boast about), it came to me, randomly, in the night. But when I’m asked the question, I’m always prepared with my standard response.
“Surely your novel’s autobiographical?”
“No, of course not.” Then I pick something superficial that my character does, like play tennis, and I say: “I don’t play tennis, do I?”
It sometimes works, but I’m not sure. In any case, it doesn’t matter. No one can ever prove anything.
Note: all the facts in this article are fictitious and any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
www.litro.co.uk/index.php/2009/04/23/majuto and www.litro.co.uk/index.php/2009/04/23/the-poacher) and decongested.org.uk, written guest blogs about writing at strictlywriting.blogspot.com and is working on her second novel.
Laura’s website is: delilah-mj.blogspot.com