Sunday, February 25, 2007

It's called CREATIVE writing for a reason.

The unfortunate thing about the oldest and most worn-out adage for writers, "Write What You Know," is that the truth is unbelievable. If I wrote what I know, about the people I know, the places I've been, readers would yawn, roll their eyes and say, "that goddamn James Frey has ruined literature." My life, everyone's life is just too damn colorful for fiction.

I keep a notebook of snippets of dialogue and descriptions of characters and places. I can't say I've ever consulted this book when I'm stuck - I don't write that way - but it helps me to see in writing what seems interesting in real life. And what I've found is the people I know well make terrible fictional characters. Putting them on paper is like paint-by-numbers. The same with real-life drama and conflicts. A couple I know in town has recently separated. They have five kids and the husband is a raging alcoholic. When I have only that much information, a story immediately germinates in my mind. But I know much more about the situation than those few facts, and as a result, I have a hard time inventing dialogue and quirky details about them. I can't write real-life people into my stories (by law), and I can't fictionalize people I know.

My first short story started out many years ago as a funny vignette about a friend of my husband's and mine. He's one of the most interesting people I know, living a life full of twists and turns. After writing one page about him I quit. He's too big for paper. In the original story, I kept his real name, which of course was a terrible idea. I couldn't riff on the real guy. Then, a couple years later I met a guy named Lanny. He was an immature, indolent surgeon. Such a perfectly bizarre combination of charactistics! A perfect character! Then after a page, his story stalled too. I had come to know him too well. Jimi Hendrix can spice up The Star Spangled Banner because he's a genius. I am not, and could not stray from real-life personas of these two men.

Somewhere along the way, maybe as a creative writing exercise, I married Lanny and my friend into a different guy, and it worked. I didn't rely on either one of them in particular for a characteristic or a detail. The character became his own man and I had a well of ideas and details from which to choose. But I won't do it again, if I can help it. Occasionally the fictional Lanny would do something in the story and I'd get confused, thinking to myself, "the real Lanny would never do that." Or the fictional Lanny would say something strange - out of place in the story - that my real friend might say. It was disorienting.

Now my characters are independent. I get details from real people, but people I don't know, real places I've driven through, but have never lived in. So I'm not sure if I'm writing what I know, but it's a hell of a lot easier. I don't have to be Jimi Hendrix, I can just make stuff up.

Edited to add: I'm working on a story now about some cashiers working in an all-night drugstore. The youngest is new and learning the ropes, but there's a dispute amongst them about something. Let's make this a little interactive: tell me a detail about these women (3 of them) and the night-shift pharmacist. A physical descriptor, a bit of their history, maybe a bad habit. Anything. What do you think these people are like?

15 Comments:

Blogger mamalujo1 said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2/25/2007 7:28 PM  
Blogger Lucia said...

I really like this post as it gets into the process, which is really fascinating. Maybe that's why fiction writers have characters who are writers?

2/26/2007 3:17 AM  
Blogger spellconjurer said...

I think the pharmacist should have a secret meth lab in his basement.

I think one of the girls should have a mysterious itch/rash that nothing in the pharmacy will fix, and she's tried it ALL, and waits impatiently for new cremes to arrive.

ohhh and definitely one of the women would have just one tooth on top. It's always my luck in a 24 hours anything, at night.

maybe one of them could be enrolled in a really good college secretly, without telling the others. Putting themselves through college. (just so all of my suggestions aren't completely negative)

Mignon you are such an inspiration for the writing process. Maybe you should be a Writing Motivational Speaker! A Motivational Writing Speaker? A Speaker of Writing with Motivation? ahhhh well. Have no fear, I won't attempt to volunteer to write any motivational speeches for you!

2/26/2007 3:59 AM  
Anonymous Nancy said...

See, one of the reasons I think you're so great is that you can write fiction like nobody's business. Try as I might to be creative, I'm a non-fiction kind of gal.

So I'm not sure I can help the way the previous commenters did with details about the protagonists of your story, but one thing did pop into my mind: one of the women working at the pharmacy has a really bad dye job. And/or wears waaaay too much perfume.

2/26/2007 6:24 AM  
Blogger meno said...

Here's a quote i love: "The total history of almost anyone would shock almost everyone." - Mignon McLaughlin

Somehow this seems appropriate to your post.

Re:night clerks- One of them is going to school during the day and studying engineering. She observes the others from her lofty plane.

One has three young kids at home and her husband also has a crappy job. He is sleeping with the pharmacist.

One has worked at the drugstore for 6 years. She writes bad romance novels and hates men.

2/26/2007 7:10 AM  
Blogger Tink said...

Woman 1: Older woman. Likes to gossip about the customers who come in. Smokes through the hole where her throat box goes.

Woman 2: Middle aged. Barren. Compensates by rescuing strays. Currently owns 12 dogs, 8 cats, a donkey, and a one-legged rooster.

Woman 3: 20-something. Good ol' country girl. Not very bright. Still thinks babies come from kissing.

They all vie for the pharmacist's attention.

2/26/2007 1:30 PM  
Blogger Bimbo said...

I liked Spellconjurer's second idea, about the mysterious rash. Maybe she tries all the creams and ointments on the sly, because she doesn't want anyone to know she's got this particular funk though it doesn't have to be something socially godawful. Maybe the testing starts to get kinda fun so she moves on to toothpaste, Preparation-H, et al.

You come equipped with cojones. The next time you're in Walgreen's or whatever pharmacy, lean over to one of the clerks and say, "Tell me something weird about the night crew. You don't have to name names and I won't rat you out." People love to talk smack and about themselves. They also love to help and play games. You'd be amazed at the shiz I find out just by asking.

Even if what they tell you is fictitious... so what? So's your story.

2/26/2007 3:42 PM  
Blogger patches said...

Crap, I worked at this place in college.

Pharmacist: Dirty old man, sexually harasses the clerks, sings hymns, while he pushes pills, esteemed deacon of Baptist church, and chronic whistler.

Clerk #1: Mid-fifties, bottle blond, not too sharp, starts a fist fight with Clerk #2 on the sidewalk in front of the pharmacy. Walks around the house naked after she gets off work, and shares this with the other clerks.

Clerk #2: Former home improvement store employee, married to pest control guru, step son accidentally shoots himself in the head during an intoxicated game of russian roulette while five friends watch.

Clerk #3: Late teens, daughter of pharmacy bookkeeper (who BTW is sleeping with the co-owner of the pharmacy), aborts trashy boyfriends child before graduating high school, and gets caught by local police department having sex in car at the HS baseball field.

I would be Clerk #4: part time, dayshift, full time art student. Roller bladed down the store aisles on slow days to pass time.

2/26/2007 6:49 PM  
Anonymous dorothy said...

Of course, the younger clerk is secretly illiterate.

I workshopped a pretty much verbatim true story about my life once, but I was positioning it as fiction. Everyone said, "no girl would ever put up with that."

Ugh.

2/27/2007 9:29 AM  
Blogger Esereth said...

Mignon, you are just slamming that nail into the wall, with one hit. I tried to write a story about my friend and her mother, a GREAT story to have watched unfold in real life, and it was SO DULL on paper. I have wondered about this, about how fettered it made me. Thank you for exploring it.

And all I know is that one of your women, probably the night phamacist, is a lesbian. She's mannish and grim, the other women are polite to her because it's fashionable to be so, but feast on her in their minds. She and her partner have a little boy they adopted. She loves him so much.

2/27/2007 11:32 AM  
Anonymous TB said...

I've been noodling your request around since yesterday and everything I come up with is really cliche, but here goes:

One woman recently moved from South Dakota. She is half Native American and has long silky black hair.

One woman has the bad habit of biting her lips. She's also addicted to chapstick.

The last woman is older and mean as a snake. She hates the youngest, new woman, just on principal and does everything she can to make her life miserable.

The night pharmacist is secretly addicted to an internet game like Second Life or Warcraft and plays constantly when he's not at work. He has a hard time distinguishing between the internet world and reality and wishes that he could be the character he has made up for himself.

2/27/2007 1:49 PM  
Anonymous Ortizzle said...

I think you've got a lot of great physical descriptions above to choose from. So here are ideas for characters:

One of the clerks is a single Mom. Her unemployed sister takes care of her kid when she works the night shift. The sister usually has her boyfriend over, too, and the kid doesn’t get a lot of attention from either one of them. The clerk keeps hoping some decent man will rescue her so she can drive an SUV around suburbia and not have to work. The Pharmacist, who is in a bad marriage, kind of likes her but does not like kids at all.

Another clerk is a kleptomaniac. She has enough stuff in the trunk of her car to open up her own little drug store. When it starts getting full, she makes little spontaneous gifts of this stuff to her neighbors who think she gets it free because of her job.

A third clerk is a university student. He studies most of the time, but also engages in harmlesss flirting with the other women hoping they won't notice how little work he really does. He knows about the klepto's habit, but doesn't say anything because he thinks it's funny.

The Pharmacist himself is working on getting out of his bad marriage. He slips arsenic in small amounts into his wife's food on a fairly regular basis. The klepto clerk knows what he is up to because she overhears him on the phone one day, but doesn't say anything because she is waiting for the right moment to use this information to her advantage.

Terrible cliché. Better for Desperate Housewives really.

2/28/2007 8:07 AM  
Anonymous V-Grrrl said...

So who's dealing in contraband sudafed? That's what I wanta know.

Anyone nipping off the Nyquil that's supposed to be discarded because it's past its expiration date?

Is there a freak who likes to mix medicines and see what happens? Or comes up with esoteric pharmaceutical questions for the pharmacist to chew on?

I worked for a newspaper editor who was an alcoholic and used to drink LISTERINE.

And the young chick--she shoplifts makeup.

2/28/2007 10:04 AM  
Anonymous Nocturnal said...

It's safe to say you definitely have a cr8ive mind, keep it up.

3/01/2007 2:41 AM  
Blogger lildb said...

you know why I know you're gonna make it as a writer?

because I'm deeply, troublingly jealous of your talents.

I mean that in the most sincere, most not-cute sense possible.

3/30/2007 8:53 PM  

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