By this I mean, writers use what happens. Even when what happens is, for normal human purposes, unprintable.
It’s not much talked about directly, but it’s certainly how most writers work.
To that old, old question “How much of that story is true?” (or any of the dozen variations on it) the honest answer for most of us is: “How much time have you got?”
Writers are always spying. We’re vampires. Certainly, we make up a ton of stuff. But the stuff that’s made up generally comes from observed life. What else is there to draw from?
This reflex actually functions as a consolation, too, against the haplessness of the author caught—as we all are—in the wild, rapid, shapeshifting, tastemaker wars of current literary culture.
Who’s hot changes almost hourly these days. We can’t really affect that, and if we let it, it can drag us down. But we can deepen craft. This costs nothing but brain-and-soul-power, is invisible to the untrained eye, and no one can take it from us.
And part of craft-deepening means drinking and digesting the blood of the real.
Best of all, you can tell people you’re working when all you seem to be doing is walking around, drinking coffee, doing dishes.
You are working, of course. During various runs at my local park, I overheard these comments:
“Rhododendrons are okay—in their place.”
“Those were the days when you had to have an enema before you had a baby.”
“Who’s going to protect you if you dress like that?”
“Nowadays you have to get a permit to bury someone in your yard.”
Now, I ask you. Are these not the equivalent of finding rubies and pearls amid the birdseed of normal conversation? Of course I used them. And no one went crazy or died.
Therefore, though I’m plundering three different analogies to describe it (panning for gold, drinking blood, rubies in birdseed), let us now celebrate the swift and constant and dirt-cheap provision of material by the world and lives around us.
The tank’s self-replenishing (ack—a fourth analogy): Drive on!
Joan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Life, just nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.