I’ve always been interested in the question of where the fiction writer finds material. I’m particularly interested in how the autobiographical gets transformed into fiction. My curiosity comes not from wanting to know about the personal lives of writers, but more from a desire to provide my students a way to increase the urgency and intensity in their stories, to write about people and events and objects that matter deeply to the writers themselves, even if those characters and their actions and the things they possess are pure inventions. I believe writers create more memorable works when they either consciously or unconsciously make space for their own lives within their fictions. That’s why I often begin a fiction workshop with a nonfiction writing activity, one that invites the writers to recall specific moments from their pasts that were full of emotional complexity. Moments of simultaneous love and hate, fear and courage, pride and shame, or any other binary of opposites. I call these touchstone moments, ones that we fiction writers can tap into on an unconscious level during the writing of a story or novel, and by so doing, create a more resonant work.
I’m also interested in the use we fiction writers make of the objects that populate our invented worlds. Flannery O’Connor, in Mysteries and Manners, says, “In good fiction, certain of the details will accumulate meaning from the action of the story itself, and when this happens they become symbolic in the way they work.” She cites her own story, “Good Country People,” as an example. The story of a spiritually and physically maimed young woman who wears a wooden leg that ends up being stolen by a traveling Bible salesman. As O’Connor points out, writing about this story in Mysteries and Manners, the theft reveals the young woman’s deeper affliction to her, the affliction that comes from the absence of faith. The Bible salesman says to her as he’s about to leave, “. . .you ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!” The detail of the wooden leg, then, works within the plot of the story while at the same time expanding it thematically. If we fill our fictional worlds with concrete details and then make them a significant part of the action, we not only hasten the plot along, we also complicate the thematic concerns of a narrative in a rich and interesting way.
Let’s try a writing exercise that’s meant to invite you to access one of those touchstone moments from the past so it’ll be there at your disposal anytime you want to tap into its emotional complexity in your fiction. This exercise should also allow you to think about the way concrete objects acquire meaning through action.
1. Make a list of shoes that you remember wearing as a child. Go as far back in memory as you can.
2. Which pair of shoes on your list resonates most strongly for you, probably because they’re connected in some way to an emotionally complex moment from your childhood.
3. Using those shoes as your object, begin a freewrite with the words, “I was wearing them the day. . .” Narrate a moment from your past in which you felt contradictory emotions.
That’s all there is to it. Tell a story from your past and feel the layers of emotion that you felt then, that you still feel when you recall it. Let that complicated moment fill you. Know that it’s always there to help you create more resonant moments in your fiction, not necessarily replications of your experiences but containers for the complicated come and go of our lives at the ready for your use with created characters and events.