What If?: Creating Fiction from Actual Experiences
Last week I wrote about one of the ways that stories often come to me. Sometimes a memorable character draws me into a narrative, and I follow the story he or she creates to see where it might lead. I’ve also been called to a story because I play the “what if?” game with either an experience I’ve had myself or one someone else has had.
At one time, I lived in an apartment near what’s now the University of Memphis. I didn’t realize it when we moved in that we were at the edge of a crime-ridden neighborhood. One night, I was stupid enough to leave a window up in the living room, a window that happened to be immediately adjacent to the front door.
I was asleep in the bedroom when I heard a noise. My then wife and I had two house cats, and at first, I thought I was hearing them romping as they tended to do in the middle of the night. For some reason, I decided to get up and investigate. I stepped into the hall just as a man opened the front door and stepped inside.
Narratives involve moments of pressure, and I’d say the sight of that man stepping into the apartment certainly qualified as one. Pressure causes our characters to reveal things about themselves normally hidden beneath whatever facades they present to the world in the course of their everyday come-and-go. Sometimes they reveal aspects of their characters that even they didn’t know they possessed.
I’ve always imagined the world at large thinks I’m a pretty calm person—timid, even at times—but people don’t know everything there is to know. We’re all made up of contradictory impulses, and it’s those contradictions that make for memorable characters in our stories. Put enough pressure on anyone, and those contradictions rise to the surface.
When the door to that apartment opened, and the man stepped inside, I acted without thinking. I advanced toward him, shouting at him. I thought I was telling him to, “Get the fuck out,” and a few other choice things, but later my wife told me all she heard were guttural animal-like sounds coming from me. The resolution to this story was that the man got frightened and ran, and a security alarm installed and more wisdom about leaving windows up later (the man had popped our screen out, reached in and turned out locks), life went on.
Then at some point, probably ten years or so later, I started to wonder what would have happened if my wife hadn’t been able to let the story go. What if she’d told it time and time again, and what if she’d done so with the intent to humiliate me? I created a husband who squandered money in risky investment schemes, and a wife who resented having to sell her jewelry to help pay the bills. The story of the break-in became the backstory for “Real Time,” another story from my upcoming collection, The Mutual UFO Network. The main narrative involves a key the husband finds outside the post office. He decides to leave a note on the bulletin board in the lobby: FOUND. KEYS. TO CLAIM: CALL 595-0819.
At the time I was writing this story, I lived in Denton, Texas, and there was a storage unit I used to drive by whose sign was missing a letter, so it read “ELF STORAGE.” Such verbal tics often catch my attention, and I file them away and wait for a story that can hold them. “Real Time” turned out to be one of those stories. The storage unit provides the final dramatic setting for the story.
The man who shows up to claim the keys isn’t the nice man he pretends to be. He interests the husband in an investment in a salon called Suddenly Slender, a place that will feature a weight loss technique involving plastic bandages soaked in a special mineral solution that reduce fat cells and squeeze out the fluids and toxins around them. He offers to take the husband and wife to ELF STORAGE where he keeps the bandages and the solution. Alone in the storage unit with the husband, the man presses a knife to the husband’s throat. The story turns into one of menace at this point, and the husband realizes he won’t escape. More than this, he worries about his wife who waits outside. He imagines the moment when the man steps outside, and she realizes she’s in trouble. The husband imagines her calling his name again and again until finally it’s “a wail so high and thin it could barely hold the weight of such fear—at last something private and intimate between them.”
I let the “what if?” game put my characters in trouble, and then I looked for an unexpected moment to give the story its final resonance. Again, I relied on contradictions. The moment of terror that the husband imagines for his wife turns in the last part of the final sentence into something loving—something private and intimate. I remember being surprised when I wrote that last line. “No surprise in the writer,” Robert Frost famously said, “no surprise in the reader.” In the case of “Real Time” I let myself imagine a different story from my own experience by saying, “What if?” I then relied on the things around me—a storage unit, a lost key, a body-wrap reducing scheme, a pen pal for prisoners (all things I’d witnessed or read about)—to create the sequence of narrative events. I then waited for the pressure of those events to find the contradictions. All along the husband in the story has good-naturedly tolerated his wife’s telling of the story of the break-in, but here at the end, in the midst of the terror, he finds what he’s wanted all along—a private closeness between them. Stories often end on a note of simultaneous loss and gain. Awareness can come too late, as it does in this story.
Dramatic moments can create opposing truths. We can get to a resonant resolution by being curious—by saying, “What if this happened?” Or, “What if that happened?” Sometimes writing a story is a process of trial and error as we look for the proper “what if?” to create the pressure necessary to bringing those opposites to the surface.
Lee, again you take the lid off a fascinating mental journey. Travelling with your writer mind is such a pleasure.
Thanks so much, Roz!
“a wail so high and thin it could barely hold the weight of such fear—at last something private and intimate between them.”
That gave me goosebumps.
Thank you, Heidi!