Thursday, September 12, 2013

It is Not Midnight and It's Not Raining

by Amanda Earl

My characters are like a collage or perhaps Frankenstein's Creature would be a better analogy. I take a mood from one person, a physical attribute from another, a bit of history from another and so on. All of these bits are micro particles, just one or two atoms from each that come together and form an entire made up being. And I can't usually figure out the ratio of real to imagined in the final version of the story. On rare occasions (so far) one of my stories will portray a character who is strongly based on one specific person.  Even then, I usually extrapolate, exaggerate or change the nature of the character to suit the story.

Example: I have this beautiful, intelligent friend who I admire greatly. I popped some of her attributes into a story I wrote at the beginning of this year, but I changed her personality and added some traits that are modelled after my own. I created another character with some of my own attributes too. I had these two chicks fuck a guy and each other in the tale. Neither my friend nor I are into women, so there goes reality. But this is what the story required, so I did it. I also let her know and she was flattered and relieved that it was in fact a well-written story.

While I find it uncomfortable when people look for real autobiographical or biographical detail in my stories, I like it when they recognize themselves or others in my work when I haven't deliberately set out to write about them. I think a good character is one readers can relate to or lust after or be afraid of or all those things at once.

There are times though when someone is so intriguing to me or the reality of the situation is so compelling or bizarre that I feel I need to write it in fiction form. An example of such is the story "How I Learned to Give Good Head" (Tasting Him, Oral Sex Stories, Cleis Press, 2008). It's pretty much a word for word true account or at least my memory of what went on with me and some hook up in Montreal in the winter of 2000. The names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent. Thanks to this guy I became a really fabulous cock sucker. He said men would thank him and believe me, they have.

Sometimes I've needed to write about people or incidents in my life as a form of catharsis. In the past year, I wrote the most uncomfortable story I've ever written. It was closer to the truth autobiographically than any I have ever written before. It was about growing old, mortality, feeling unattractive to a man I was interested in who clearly didn't feel the same. But the main character's thoughts and actions were heightened, way beyond any I've ever felt or experienced. In order to be comfortable sharing a story with such autobiographical resonance, I needed to believe readers would respect the difference between me and this fictionalized version of me in this story, between the man in the story and that heightened version in my story. Otherwise I would never have felt brave enough to write so candidly.

I think this invisible divide between reality and fantasy is a pact between reader and writer. When readers don't respect it and insist that a work is autobiographical or push to find out if the characters are based on anyone real, they are breaking that pact. The pact is insurance that a writer will feel free to create in any way she desires. And that's essential for creativity, in  my opinion.

Ironically by being able to extrapolate from my real life and exaggerate it, I made the story even more true, if that makes sense. The reason for this is because the emotions I felt were real and I translated that feeling into the story. I apologized before the story was published to the man who inspired the story. It was a bit uncomfortable, but hey, we're still friends. And as a fellow writer, he seemed to understand and accept my inclusion of some of the details of our friendship in the story.

Part of being a writer is to have empathy and compassion for others. Writers take their empathy and use it to create characters readers can feel compassion for, or hatred for, or longing for etc…It's the emotion that is the real part, but where it is applied in a piece of fiction is the writer's choice and often in large part invention or the assembly of jigsaw pieces for a whole new puzzle.

In real life I am quite open about myself. I admit to being a happily married polyamorous slut with a lust for younger men. But there's something about creative writing  that seems to leave me more vulnerable. I'm not really sure why. Perhaps it's because the truth just happens…just is, but my fiction is something that comes from my own peculiar way of looking at the world. And I know I'm peculiar and eccentric but do I want others to think of me that way? Maybe. I'm not sure.

Sometimes my fiction espouses my philosophies and values and sometimes it is diametrically opposed to what I believe or somewhere in between or not related at all to it. Whatever will work to write a good piece of fiction. But it's all a world I've created to be read and interpreted by others. So sharing this world is a scary thing. Sometimes in my writing my motivation is a need to find kindreds, people who share my values, my way of looking at the world, my hopes and desires. Writing for me is a form of intimate connection between writer and reader.

Therefore it is not surprising that readers try to make a correspondence between reality and what's in the story. As a reader, I too have an instinct to try and match up the details of the story with the details of the author's life or look for people I might know if it's a writer who's a friend of mine. It's human nature.

I seem to remember that the Canadian author Michael Winter wrote what was referred to as a fictional memoir entitled "This All Happened" where the characters mapped pretty closely to folks he knew in St. John's, Newfoundland. I think he took some flak for that. You can imagine how his fellow Newfoundlanders must have gossiped. Juicy stuff.

And for those of us who write erotica or romance, there's even more of a tendency for people to assume or hope that what we write is autobiographical. Heck, you want to believe that someone is having wild, unbridled sex, so the erotica writer's steamy tales give us all hope that sexual freedom actually exists in this puritanical century. I admit I've written erotica in the hopes it will help me get laid (it has), I've taken out my frustrations of not being able to fuck some man I'm interested in by writing a story in which some version of him appears. I've even tried out some scenarios with my husband (especially mmf threesomes, which i adore) and with hook ups (public sex is a particular fetish of mine) just so I could write about them. Yeah, I've done all that. I've also imagined the sex lives of friends and complete strangers and written some kind of version of such in my stories.

Much of what I write as fiction is motivated by curiosity. Since almost nobody I know is willing to give me the juicy details of their sex lives, I have to imagine them. And I have a filthy mind and a great imagination. If you want to give me the deets of your juicy sex life or you have a few fantasies you'd like to share, please do so. They might end up in my fiction.

Basically it's all fodder for my creativity. Your life, my life, my fantasies and yours. I usually warn people I meet that I'm a writer and I can't help nor will I try to control my creative impulse to magpie their lives. I suggest that if they have a secret or something private, they shouldn't tell me about it unless they are comfortable with its fictionalization in some way. But I am more obsessed with the tiny seemingly insignificant details of their lives. 

Such detail is what makes a story more realistic. I spend a lot of time sitting around in caf├ęs or bars or on the street observing people and their interactions. It's possible I became a writer so that I could be a lazy voyeur. One of the reasons I like social media so much is because it gives me insight and information about people. I am fascinated with the most mundane of details. I glean FaceBook, Twitter, Tumblr and Pinterest for all the clockwork of humanity I can get my greedy little digital paws on. I even go on to these online data sites and get men to tell me their fantasies. I let them know that I'm using the material for my fiction. For the most part, it titillates them. Sometimes we all get a good wank out of the experience.

These days there's a genre referred to as creative nonfiction where people meld reality with creativity. And of course James Frey got into huge trouble for calling his  semi-fictional novel "A Million Little Pieces," a memoir. The line between truth and fiction is being blurred more and more. How about we just accept that all literature is fiction, whatever we call it? It's meant to be art, it transcends reality and reflects universal truths at the same time. That's the paradox of art.

Writers are liars. At least I am. I always have been. As a child I told stories of Gumby and Pokey's adventures in show and tell. My teacher asked me to bring in something real and I didn't know what she meant. My imagination has always been very real to me.

Like all good liars, I use a dollop of truth and a dollop of fantasy. A good story is a stew of real and invented ingredients. Taste the stew; enjoy the stew. Just don't ask me how I made it or whether I made the gravy from scratch or used a package of Knor's.

"Then I went back into the house and wrote, 'It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows.' It was not midnight. It was not raining."-- Samuel Beckett, Molloy


  1. "Basically it's all fodder for my creativity. Your life, my life, my fantasies and yours."

    Lots of truth in this post, Amanda. One thing that struck me in reading is the fact that I at least don't necessarily remember what "really" happened. We all tell ourselves stories about our pasts, and that is what we recall, the stories, not the "reality", which is fleeting and ephemeral in any case.

    Someone should post a link to this on the Writers list (I'm currently unsubscribed as I struggle to get things done before leaving on a long trip). I suspect it would kindle some great discussion.

    1. thanks, Lisabet. yes, exactly. memory is a tricky thing & it is coloured by a lot of factors, including experience & hearing other people's memories.

      good luck with your busy-ness & have a good trip...

    2. Once I've written a story about some event, I can never remember reality properly. I remember reality as what I wrote. Even if it didn't happen quite that way.

      Not sure I care if readers assume my work is autobiographical. The stuff that's based on my life is waaaaay sanitized, if you can believe that.

  2. Amanda, you sure do come up with thoughtful posts. To comment on such range would take up 10x more space than your original. Of course, our fictional characters ultimately derive from experience, but I sure wouldn't want to be friends with some of mine. I tend to write in caricatures rather than traits I consciously recognize from real life in an individual. Obviously, from the quality of your work, I too should be following some of your process.

    And Lisabet-
    I'll send this to Adrienne. She'll likely post it, but I don't want to presume without her ok.

    1. thanks, Daddy X. i never meant to imply that i was friends with all of those who inspired characters. au contraire. i've certainly taken observed nasty traits & behaviours & plucked them for stories. a good topic might be the subject of bad guys & anti-heroes. i've written quite a few of the latter, the marginalized, long-haired guys all we women fall for ;) thanks for the kind words & for passing the post on to Adrienne. you folks are sweet :)

  3. Writers are in love with words. Most of us, no matter what degree we may have earned in college, love to analyze people and events endlessly. That's what I loved about being an English major in college, and that's how my mind has always worked. I love your explanation of how characters germinate and grow into the full-fledged people you write.

    BYW, my husband is a computer engineer. He gets impatient with me when he asks me what I'm thinking about, and I actually tell him. He just coasts along in life without analyzing anyone's behavior. Sometimes I envy him that, but then the voices in my head get me engrossed in their lives again and I'm at their mercy...and happy to be there.

  4. thanks, Fiona. my own husband is a computer guru & still quite analytical [why does that word seem wrong? :)] & as fascinated by people as i am.

  5. Wonderful insights into the topic, Amanda. I struggled to explain the overlap of memory and creativity when I was writing the introduction for my true-story lesbian anthology for Cleis Press (Wild Girls, Wild Nights) and didn't succeed nearly as well as you do. No, I didn't include a story of my own. I was amazed by the fine submissions I got, and not entirely convinced some of them were true, although I knew enough about most of the writers' backgrounds to be sure they weren't impossible. When I had them write bits about the backgrounds of their stories for a blog tour sort of thing, though, they really convinced me.

  6. thanks, Sacchi. your Wild Girls, Wild Nights antho sounds intriguing.

    1. For the record, my story "Ring of Roses" in Wild Girls, Wild Nights is true. Someone on my blog called it "scary honest." LOL

    2. love those words, "scary honest" :)

  7. Fascinating post, Amanda.

    Ack. I'll stop here because my computer is acting up again. (I don't have a computer-expert husband. The IT guys at the university are very helpful, but only available to me during working hours.) :)

    1. thanks, Jean. i hope your computer issues get resolved.


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