By Lisabet Sarai
There are places I remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever, not for better,
Some have gone, and some remain.
--In My Life by Paul McCartney and John Lennon
My husband and I were having a Mexican dinner the other night. "Remember the Forest Cafe?" I asked him. "That funky Mexican place on Mass Ave in Cambridge?"
He didn't. As I tried to describe it to him, however, I realized that I wasn't seeing the actual place in my mind. What I was seeing and remembering was my fictionalized version. There is a scene in my novel Incognito set in this restaurant. Now when I try to recall the place, how it was laid out, its atmosphere and decor, it's that scene that comes to mind. The fiction has become more vivid for me than the reality.
I've blogged before about the fact that I'm very place-oriented in my writing. Nearly every story I've written is set in a specific locale, often a place that I know well or have at least visited. I hadn't realized, though, how persistent my mental images of my settings become – strong enough to override or distort actual experience.
Raw Silk includes a scene in a luxury Bangkok hotel called the Montien. The hotel actually exists; many years ago I may have entered the lobby once or twice. Now when I think about that hotel, I clearly recall going up the elevator to the hotel room itself. I remember the thick carpets that mute my footsteps. I can picture the layout of the room, with its floor-to-ceiling windows, the king sized bed where Kate finds wrist cuffs and a collar awaiting her, the mirrored vanity where she watches as Gregory takes her from behind. I could draw a map. It's as vivid as if it happened yesterday--although it never happened, not in the real world at least!
I just finished editing a Christmas story called Almost Home, set in western Massachusetts where I lived for many years. The two heroes own a house that's mentally borrowed from one of my neighbors, a two-hundred-plus year old farm with the typical rambling barn and so on. However, I added a few touches: a row of evergreens in the yard, a big oak tree, a hot tub on the (non-existent) deck, just out of sight of the street. Now, I can almost feel the alchemy happening, the imagined details distorting my memory of the real ones. I'm willing to bet that in a few months, I'll believe that our thrifty, staid neighbors actually did have a hot tub where they lounged naked under snowy skies!
I tend to use my personal experiences as the seed for many of my stories. However, as soon as I begin to fictionalize an individual, an event or a setting, it starts to become real. I begin to have difficulty distinguishing what actually happened from what I've written.
One of the characters in Almost Home is based on a guy I knew in high school. I spend quite a bit of time describing him — romance readers want to know what the hero looks like — and I changed some aspects of my old friend's appearance. In particular I gave him longer hair and side burns, like a nineteen eighties Italian crooner. Now when I try to picture my real friend, I don't see his crew cut anymore. The image of my hero has taken over.
My confusion between reality and fiction is particularly a problem with sexual activities. As I've shared in previous posts, I've been involved in one BDSM relationship, which had its most active and intense phase many years ago. That relationship had a huge impact on me, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Since then I've written dozens of BDSM stories. Aspects of that seminal D/s relationship show up in almost every one, as core inspiration or plausible detail. Very rarely have I fictionalized an actual scene between my Master and me. Nevertheless, I'm embarrassed to admit that now I'm not completely sure whether he ever really flogged me (for example). I recall it quite clearly, but then, I've written about it so many times...perhaps I'm only recalling my fantasies.
I know, rationally, that I've had only fleeting opportunities to make love to a woman. I've never brought a woman to climax. Still, I almost remember the taste of my lover's pussy, the way she clenches her thighs around my ears and shudders when I nibble her clit. In this case, I don't have trouble keeping reality and fiction distinct. However, the recollections of my stories feel more genuine and satisfying than the memories of my brief and frustrating real experiences.
When I mentally review my life, I'm slightly in awe of all my adventures. Who would have thought that the chubby, socially awkward egghead I was as a teen would have the chance to sample so many of the delights of the flesh? I never guessed that my childhood dreams of travel to exotic lands would come true the way they have.
Now I'm a bit worried, however. What if I made everything up? What if all the thrilling recollections I know I'll have on my deathbed are nothing but stories?
My husband is fond of saying that “there is no reality”. (I suspect that his experiences during the Sixties have something to do with this opinion.) As for me, I believe that reality is malleable, shaped by beliefs, expectations and desires. And in my case, I guess, by the stories I create.