A splash of reality

In L.M. Montgomery’s semi-autobiographical Emily Climbs, the title Emily publishes a novel after years of pursuing a career in writing.  She recounts to a friend that half her family is offended because they are sure they appear in the novel, and the other half is equally offended that they do not appear!

Emily’s experience has been instructive to me; while I would not ban my daily reality from my writing, I don’t seek to adapt experiences or characters directly from it, either.  Part of this is an ethical decision.  Most of my daily experiences now are in the classroom, and I believe it’s unethical and a little exploitative for me to write too directly about specific students or classroom situations.  Of course, my own experiences there and the understandings that I’ve developed from them influence my writing a lot, but all specifics from my school world must be invented, composite, or otherwise disguised.

I am a little more comfortable mining my family history for skeletons.  My father is an inveterate story-teller, and stories of his grandparents, my grandparents, and generations of uncles and cousins undergird my entire storytelling vocabulary.  I still try to avoid adapting characters directly from the family, although some of the larger-than-life figures became myths so long ago that I figure they wouldn’t even recognize themselves and are fair game.

But mostly, my life isn’t that exciting.  Were I to write it down, it would make for very boring books. Indeed, when I was in college I did try to write down stories from my student life, but as it turns out the angst filled coming-of-age of mostly middle class, mostly white, mostly Midwestern college students does not make for riveting prose.  Now I know people from many more diverse walks of life, and their stories are probably pretty interesting–but they are not my stories, and I try not to steal others’ stories.

One place that I see reality splashing in is when I learn new skills or knowledge sets; my last novel had a lot more specifics of plant life than my first two, since I started gardening between those novels!  Now I’ve started sewing and trying to make more of my own garments–and lo and behold, my characters suddenly have a lot more ideas about the specifics of clothing manufacture.  Certainly, living informs writing, but for me it doesn’t take it over. Reality is overrated, anyway–if the text doesn’t splash me into a reality more vivid, or more gritty, or more refined, or more something than my own reality, then why would I read it?  Why would I write it?


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