Sunday, September 12, 2010

Places I Remember

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.


  1. Excellent post, Lisabet.

    I can't say that I've ever had problems separating my fiction from my reality, but I do know that I bend reality in my head. I've talked to old friends years after an event and found that I recall things differently.

    I think the fuzzy line between your reality and fictional world is a gift. It speaks to the attention you pay to the details in your stories, and how much you commit of yourself to them. It illustrates just how you can bring so much life to them and how personal your work is.

  2. Hi, Craig,

    Thanks for the encouragement. I'm not so sure that this is a "gift", but since I can't control it, I have to learn to live with it!


  3. Now I'm worried. Does this mean I haven't traveled across the galaxy to the Tarthian Empire? *bites nails* But the hotties there are soooooo real! It has to be true.

    Surely I couldn't completely make up someone like Luc Saint-Cyr. Although I would like to believe the evil Pietas doesn't exist. Or that *I* could have come up with such a creature from my own imagination. Would that make me good at being a writer or as twisted as my sociopathic creation? Hmmm. Makes one think...

    Good article!

  4. Loved this post! Actors are taught that the mind cannot distinguish between a real and an imagined experience, so they can cry just as hard for an imagined lover leaving them as a real one if they've done the mental preparation. They don't write it down like authors but I think the mental processes in creating a reality are the same.
    I find it interesting how this ties in with the acknowledged unreliability of witness testimony. Memories can be, and probably almost always are, heavily influenced by emotion and the position from which they are viewed.

  5. Thanks for the insight:) My current WIP is a paranormal version of a relationship I had when I was young and stupid. LOL I love the plot and have the ending SO clear in my head, but I have to admit thinking back to the experience is not pleasant-- so it's slow going. I do love the idea of taking places I've been and expanding on them:)

  6. I think the post and comments bring up wonderful points about the nature of our human experience and the nature of our reality.

    For myself, I tend to agree with Lisabet. The settings I create for the fiction I write are as real to me as the house I grew up in for 15 years.

    In each case, I know the layout intimately. I know where everything belongs. I can revisit them in memory as easily as anywhere I have been in real life.

    As to the people in my few short stories, well they are very real to me as well.

    My last short story was very intrusive before I started writing, as the details on parts of the story came alive in my mind, I would “come to” and realize I was at work and had just lost 20 minutes.

    In this sense, for me, writing is like recording a memoir. I can speak about it with authority because I experienced it.

    I'll qualify this by saying I've never been published—and none of my fiction is even online at the moment.

    However, the act of writing for me has been very powerful and I think I have side-effects like Lisabet describes.

  7. Hi Lisabet!

    Actually I've always loved the way you depict life in Thailand, and I've been reading Remittance Girl's book and it gives me a very clear sense of how it would be to live in Southeast Asia. I think its natural for memory and reality to blur together. Many people think this is the nature of natural magic.

    Good post!


  8. Lisabet,

    If you are shaping reality with you fiction, I think the world's you create are most often indistinguishable from the reality the rest of us inhabit.

    And that's the mark of a ture writer.




Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.