Stick to what you know. That’s what they say. I’m not convinced it’s always good advice, but it’s at least somewhere to start.
I’m writing full-time now, so you’d think it would be even easier to stick to what I know than when I was making software. You just write about people and situations similar to those you’ve experienced yourself. Simple. Until you start thinking about what you know.
It’s been a strange road. Everyone feels that way, of course. Nobody thinks their life has been normal, which is funny because we tend to measure our own experience against that convenient fiction.
I find myself reflecting on my own past more often as I get older. Not to be maudlin, but just to understand what’s happened and try to estimate how much of me is actually just all that stuff, chewed-over, squeezed down and fossilised. The part of myself that was visited upon me, rather than the part that’s inherently me. Maybe the distinction is just an illusion, but I still pick at it.
I’ve lost a lot of memories. Swathes of years that mostly aren’t accessible to me anymore. I’m not sure when it happened, but the result is that I’ve been cut off from all but a couple of dozen bright points of my life before the age of about twelve. That’s probably normal enough too, isn’t it? I’m not really looking for an answer to that.
After twelve, things changed, and only incidentally because of adolescence. Those were bleak, murky years. High school was fantastic; I was happy and successful there. Home was different. And I wrote, as a way to channel whatever I was thinking and feeling – channel it away, that is. It wasn’t entirely effective.
I lived at home for a while, and I lived with another family for a while. I saw my father for three or four hours (on one night) per week for a few years, then a lot less. I saw my mother more often, and knew it was too much. To be fair, she had a very tough time of it too.
My days were school (blissful, sanity-preserving school), and my evenings and weekends were the accelerating chaos of a recently-single-parent home, my mother’s own spiral down, and the hundred-fathoms pressure of adult issues I shouldn’t have been exposed to at thirteen and fourteen and fifteen: acrimony, bankruptcy, the loss of a home, life-threatening illness, and all the rest. Things that, ideally, we grown-ups should shield children from, rather than involving them directly.
My biggest respite, much looked-forward-to, were the four to six weeks at a time over Summer where I’d be rattling around in the big house entirely on my own, without even the dog for company. I actively sought those times. They were peaceful, even if the house was cold and echoey and unsettling at night. Summer would always end, though, and bring everything back.
I was ill equipped (everyone is) but too young and stupid and stunned to realise it, and so I quite naturally had a prosaic slide down towards the black deep of depression. I managed to catch a finger on the rim for just a moment – long enough to seek help on my own – and then fell. Lights out for three years.
Stick to what you know. And do what with it, exactly? Use it as-is?
Let’s do a character sketch. There’s a man, and his name isn’t Raymond, but it’s as good a name as any. He’s tall, but too thin. He has swift, clever fingers, and he does magic tricks. Cards, coins, matchsticks – they twirl and dance at his command. It’s a nervous habit turned into a conversation piece, and its purpose is distraction.
If you glance up at his hair, you’ll see that it’s a wig – believably iron-grey – but not as thick as it should be. There’s something ugly beneath; twisted flesh where his scalp ought to be. He never talks about the recovery process, and he talks only in brief, factual, abstract terms about when the bomb went off in Northern Ireland years before. All things considered, it could have been a lot worse.
He works in fireproofing, and your mind tries to make that ironic, until you realise it might just be tragic instead. He always seems to be looking around; checking what’s nearby.
He’s kind enough, and she likes him reasonably well, so that’s fine. It transpires later that he spent some time – more than once – in an institution by order of the court. That’s tragic too, and was understandably omitted from the speed dating card. But she’s a divorcée in her forties with two sons, and beggars can’t be choosers.
As a character sketch, it needs work. Is Raymond a protagonist or antagonist? Perhaps a secondary character? What are his motives? Is he even aware of them?
Let’s say he lies, too. That’s a flaw, and characters need those. Perhaps he lies about a lot, and has carefully edited even what we already know. Now he’s a darker character; perhaps even ominous. There’s darkness within him, too – an unhealthy interest in children, say, and the legal problems that go with it. A past he hasn’t spoken of, as counterpoint to the one he has. To fulfil the dramatic promise of that foreboding, he needs a narrative arc – a thing to do.
Raymond ultimately did very little, except be seen less and less often. His own darkness never really touched our lives. There was no climactic confrontation, and sadly no last-minute redemption. Instead, just a vague thread of tragedy clinging to his footsteps, leading inevitably to the final step he took off a chair. His own mother found him later, feet well clear of the floor, and I’ll always be glad it wasn’t my mother instead.
At the funeral, apparently the old woman had been under the impression they were still together the whole time, though it had in fact been years since any of us had seen his face. The day the phone call came, I wasn’t surprised – and I remembered the coins twirling in his clever fingers.
I’m not sure what to do with that. Raymond isn’t a character I can use – because Raymond, who wasn’t called Raymond, was a person instead. Therein lies the rub.
Let’s try again: sketch two. This one is a scene. There’s an outdoor tennis court: brick red with white lines. The surface is pleasantly scuffed but recently swept, because this is a private court, nestled between houses more expensive than you can quite grasp. It’s night; a warm night, because it’s early August. The city is near but sounds comfortably far, and in this neighbourhood, on a clear night like this, you can actually see the stars. The moon is out too, and is almost but not quite full.
There’s no wind, and only the slightest hum of distant civilisation. It’s past midnight, but it could be anytime at all in the night. A boy of about 16 sits cross-legged on the court, alone – there’s no-one else around. His feet are bare. He’s sitting fairly near the net, but not particularly so. He’s leaning back, hands splayed out with arms angled behind him, and looking up at the stars. He is the very picture of unhurried, youthful contemplation of the future.
He’s thinking about how best to end his life. Probably not tonight, on this tennis court, but sometime soon. Maybe in a week or two. For the hundredth time, he wonders if he should be feeling so academic and detached about it all, as if he were planning a social event, or a trip. And for the hundredth time, he acknowledges that, well, that’s really the whole problem in the first place, isn’t it? It’s this very lack of feeling anything that’s brought him here again tonight, over the fence once all the lights in the neighbouring windows have gone out. Seeking an efficient (and ideally painless) solution to a very impersonal problem.
There’s a problem with this character, too. He – without a name because his name was of course mine – also lacks any eventual dramatic payoff. Self-evidently he never actually managed to take the sort of step that Raymond did, whether it be a physical or metaphorical one. We’re once again left with a murky, compromised, vaguely sad but ultimately unfulfilling image of a person. Pull the paper from the typewriter, crumple it, and throw it into the bin with its brothers.
We could try again – sketch after sketch. The grand larcenist who popped up on national television later, not in the news but on a quiz show, of all things. The charming handyman who was the Dr. Jekyll to his own terrifying, alcohol-fuelled Mr. Hyde. The eerie night my mother took a break from everything, holding a soft toy and something from the cutlery drawer. The sympathetic policemen. The smell of hospitals. Character after character. All real, and none viable.
I woke up again at age twenty, and began the continuous narrative that I’m still living today. This body will be thirty-five in a few months, but this person has only really been around since about 1999.
At the time, you tell yourself that the difficult times are a tempering process – that you’re being reinforced; made stronger. You’re being heated and cooled, then heated and cooled again, and in the end you’re both more flexible and less breakable. That’s a beautiful lie. Or maybe it’s just missing the small print.
The footnote after the hidden asterisk would say that, no, you never actually get over whatever your experiences have been. The best you can hope for is that you’ll get used to not getting over them. It’s not the deal you were sold, but you’ll take it, because you have little choice.
I suppose the analogy is a paper-cut: you think it’ll heal, and sure enough it stops hurting after a little while. Later, you realise you’ve just learned to hold your hand in a different position. The skin is still broken; still raw. Sometimes it even bleeds.
An important aspect of writing is selection. What’s the message, or the moral, or the feeling you’re trying to express? Which words best serve that goal? What can you remove to make the overall piece more relevant?
To do that, you need to know what you have: you need to choose from your available materials. Your thoughts and experiences, and to some extent your vocabulary. The stuff that’s inside.
You have to be able to open the creaking door to your own personal archive, fumble for the light switch, then stroll in and rummage around until you find something that helps illustrate a certain point, or drives a particular narrative. It’s a perverse, backwards process, because that’s not how our lives work. Those experiences are writing us.
Where do you file Raymond, for example? What’s the category, if that’s how we’re indexing things, or the lesson? I think about those questions a lot as I write.
The problem is the inconvenient complexity; the flawed humanity. The grey areas. The problem is that nothing (and nobody) falls into just one category. Much of your stuff falls into no particular categories at all. It’s all just sitting there, having been deposited and accreted randomly, and most of it is lying on the floor, haphazardly scattered. The shelves themselves are empty, except for years-thick dust.
The other problem is that there’s no hope of objectivity. It’s hard to even think about the boy sitting alone on the tennis court, lit only by the moon, because he’s too damned close. Within the vault of your own most personal experiences, there’s always a trail of breadcrumbs between you and each other character, no matter how long or short the trail may be. Take those few steps, and suddenly you’re that person, in that crappy situation, making that same bad decision without being able to see a better option.
Trying to make fiction from these realities (and you’re doing that whether you’re writing or not; even if you’re just retelling or remembering) is difficult in unexpected ways. The result rings false. To the audience, it’s too nuanced, muddy, uneven, and of uncertain motive. To you, it’s the opposite: an oversimplification, tawdry and disgraceful. A betrayal of the truth, and of the actual people who took part.
But we have to do something with all this stuff. It refuses to be silent, and intrudes upon our thoughts until we attempt to exorcise it. We can’t just spew it out as-is, because it’s real and true, and things that are real and true just aren’t satisfyingly logical and balanced and dramatically coherent. So we try to learn ideal lessons from flawed circumstances, or to find boldly-drawn protagonists and antagonists where there’s only you and I.
It’s not easy. It’s both difficult and painful. But it’s unavoidable, because there are no true heroes or villains anywhere. Just unfulfilling, compromised, damaged characters, who happen to be real people.
So in the end, we always have to lie – just a bit. The challenge is finding the truest possible lie, to carry the story through.
Stick to what you know, they say, like it’s a piece of friendly advice. At best, it’s like telling me to keep breathing. And at worst, it’s more like a curse.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting my writing.