Our true lives are strung along in scene after scene after scene. Memoirs as well as fiction are created from these scenes. In putting our lives on the page the temptation to adhere to facts will do several things, none of them helpful to storytelling or writing well.
There are pitfalls of mining your life's events for fiction; resulting in your tale told only once.
Biography is the genre of telling your life. Many memoirs are biography focusing in on specific incidents; a peek at your life at certain times and places. If you're writing memoir, this lesson can still be beneficial in its exercise, but Bio into Fiction as a lesson is aimed at writers mining their own life in order to create a scene, short story, or novel.
Now let's get into ‘why’ of writing fiction without sticking to the facts in your own tale.
This piece on the Example page, flash fiction (five hundred words or so), might have been a direct take from a writer's young life. Let’s work as if it was.
- Example Toggle
Here's a sample of a novice's writing. Although this isn't the case, let's say this is a direct take from a writer's young life and isn’t something she made up for this exercise.
What I remember most from that day was his nails. Thin bands of bone white, curt in length, like the words he had for my mother. He found me in Granny's sewing room, made up into a bedroom for me. I sat on the floor looking at the photograph my mother slipped into the last book she knew I was reading. The picture showed my brother, Danny Ray, looking down at me, and me, nine, frowning into the camera.
"What'cha doing on the floor?" Uncle Joshua asked, snatching the picture from my hand before I realized he was even in the room.
I jumped up, pulling at each leg of my shorts. "Didn't want to mess up the spread."
He nodded, flicked the picture to his chest. "C'mon." He walked down the hall. I followed into the dark of the kitchen. He sat, I stood. Joshua looked over his shoulder toward the deep back of the house then tapped my picture where he had set it between us on the table. “Child, you're old enough to know the truth. Your Mamma's good as gone now. Best you get that into your mind, straight an' solid." He said a few other things too. But mostly I remember that and the sound of his nails in the dimness.
His finger so squared and wide it covered my face each time it came down over the me in the photo. He said, "Me, I always thought your Ma was a fine, pretty girl, even in them damn dungarees she wore. Spirited. Alice tried hard to liven up her world. Like the zig-zags on this picture, cut 'em with them sewing clippers-"
He looked up at me. I nodded, "-pinking shears."
"Yeah, that's right." He ran his thumbnail down the picture's edge. Dit-dit-dit-dit-dit. "Pinking... Now, your Granny," dit-dit-dit, "She knew her for a whore. From as far back as you are here in this." Tap-tap, my face disappeared again. "Never in a dress, hanging with all color of boys, then with them unnatural women, might as well a'been boys they-selves. Well, it never mattered to Alice." I looked down to the grayed linoleum. His voice kept on, even lower than before, Your brother? Black blood in that kid. Can't see it in his hair or nothing, but it's there all the same. That's why she didn't send him on with you. It just wouldn'ta been right. We're Christian. Like to like, your Granny says." Tap-tap-tap. "And now with that sickness that's got your ma -" he stared right into my eyes, "your Granny won't allow her name in this house, so don't even try."
He waited for me, watched for tears or ghosts, maybe both. But I only looked to the picture, Danny's eyes to me, and my frown, like Joshua had said, straight and solid. I guess it was then that I promised myself these people would never matter to me either. "Anyway," he reached for my picture, ripping it in half, crumbling my brother in his solid fist. Leaving me torn, alone on the table, "thank Jesus, you're with us now."
If all this had happened for real this is some heady stuff. Let’s see what we can learn from it in the exercise about putting it all into a single story.
- Lesson Exercise 1 Toggle
Lesson Exercise 1:
If you can identify sense memories in your life (that's what we’ll do by deconstructing this memory). Then you can mine those elements and use them as many times as you want in your fiction.
Let's take this thing apart. What emotions or feelings are found in the example? List them. Take the ones that come to you and note them. Resentment. Foreboding. Inflexibility. Any you can identify. Then ask a few questions:
- How does the Narrator feel about Uncle Joshua?
- How does Uncle Joshua feel about the narrator, about her mother and brother?
- How does Granny feel about the narrator?
- How does Uncle Joshua feel about Granny?
Put your answers on the list you're making. Make your answers short; let's go for no more than one line for any answer. Something like:
- Joshua creeped her out.
- She dreaded their talk.
- He tried to dominate her with his words.
Remember: Try with all your might not to use was, or is, or had in your answers; that's too passive a verb choice. Go with active verbs to make your observations. Practice writing most of your notes in active voice where you can.
Continue with more of these questions. Put your answers down in writing; make a project of this deconstruction.
- What images are you, as a reader, drawn to?
- Are there any sensory images that give you hope for the narrator?
- Are there any images that send shivers up your spine?
- Do some images create emotion and others work as foretelling?
Answer each of these questions on paper. These are great ways to start each answer.
- I feel...[emotions found by a reader on the page]
- I see/feel/hear/taste...[senses brought up for a reader ]
- I'm drawn to/repulsed by...[reactions to things]
Add these to your growing inventory of what this ‘real’ story is about. You can do the same thing by deconstructing your own work.
Alright, now you have the bones of the example there on the page. You've deconstructed this piece and come up with a large list. Emotions, Reactions, Images, Senses, Choices, Symbols, Heroes and Villains.
Start with pieces that are your memories, define them into sense memories like: Emotions, Reactions, Images, Senses, Choices, Symbols, Heroes and Villains. Pick and chose only three or four from your personal deconstructed list. If you have fifteen items, only use a few. Mix and match them with other sense memories’ lists for even more choices.
Use only the few items from these lists and write a new story that is not so tightly bound with your own reality. One that uses some but not all of your personal sense memories. Doing this allows your bio to be tapped into for your fiction.
Draw from your sense memories, and you will have stories to create for days and days. Tell facts of your life in fiction, and your story is told only once.
Note: Even though this piece is told about the past, with this Example we have the entire flash fiction story—521 words—and only five instances of the weak state-of-being verb - was, only three instances of had. Now that's an active voice.