My friend Ayelet Waldman recently started writing a bimonthly column for the e-magazine Salon.com, opening with a chilling description of how her now-defunct blog (still up at Bad Mother) became a means of communicating suicidal thoughts. I have no wish to comment on that here, aside from noting that the very idea of being so open with the world makes my blood run cold. However, the essay, and the Feb 9th blog that spawned it, should be read by everyone who knows, suspects, or is, a potential suicide. That is, basically, everyone.
However, what interests me at the moment is in the latter portion of her column, where she writes:
‘e2’80’9cAs a novelist, I mined my history, my family and my memory, but in a very specific way. Writing fiction, I never made use of experiences immediately as they happened. I needed to let things fester in my memory, mature and transmogrify into something meaningful. The fictionalized scene I ended up with was often unrecognizable from the actual event that had been its progenitor.
‘e2’80’9cBut in the months I had the blog, I was spewing as fast as my family was experiencing. My initial idea, that the blog would act as a kind of digital notebook, was not panning out. Once the experience was turned into words, I found that it was frozen. The fertile composting that I count on to generate my fiction was no longer happening.’e2’80’9d
All writers use their lives as raw material: how else? Some of us change a few more of the details than others, so the characters, the events, the places appear to be cut from the whole cloth of our imagination. When asked if I use family or friends in my writing, I always answer, ‘e2’80’9cNo, although I’e2’80’99ve borrowed one friend’e2’80’99s hair for the artist in A Grave Talent and used a friend of my husband’e2’80’99s as a basis for the English professor in To Play the Fool.’e2’80’9d All this means is, the process of turning reality into fiction is more deeply buried in my subconscious mind, the composting process (to borrow Ayelet’s imagery) thorough enough to leave fewer recognizable chunks.
However, on at least two occasions, I have deliberately and with malice aforethought written a piece of fiction precisely intending to clothe an event in the comforting gauze of unreality. One was a deeply troubling dream of being trapped in a narrow place, which kept me wincing for weeks until it made its way into the pages of (I think) A Darker Place. The other was the brief, horrifying glimpse of a cat about to die on a freeway, a sight that haunted me for months until eventually I gave it to a character and wrote it into a short story. (For an anthology on, of all things, basketball, edited by Otto Penzler as Murder at the Foul Line–it will be published this fall.)
The other day, I was driving that same patch of road, and remembered the image of the truck that had spilled the cat onto the road. I knew it had come from that story, and I drove on, thinking about writing Otto again to find out where the anthology stood.
Two miles later, I realized that it wasn’e2’80’99t a piece of made-up horror in a story spawned by a twisted mind. The thing had actually happened, but because I had changed it, worked it into a design towards an end, the power had gone out of its memory.
And when you finally read that story and it gives you the heebie-jeebies, I’e2’80’99m sure it will make you feel much better to know that I’e2’80’99ve successfully transferred the image from my basket of nightmares to yours.