If you are writing a memoir/considering writing a memoir, but something in your life is too painful or might cause grief for you and your family, try writing it as a short story. Perhaps you or some other family member has an incurable disease. Perhaps you are dealing with a parent with dementia. Writing about a painful situation, even transformed into fiction, can be a healing catharsis, but it can also turn into the most powerful story. Almost anything is fodder for fiction. Just make sure it is fiction.
I do this. One short story evolved from a family member’s (not immediate) unexpected suicide. No way did I want to add to our family grief, but maybe I had some survivor guilt. I was also a suicide survivor (from 30 years ago) and for five years volunteered at a telephone distress centre.
The short story that evolved changed everything except the suicide fact and one character’s volunteering at a distress centre. The characters were younger, brother and sister, and the story was told from the sister’s point of view. It started with her big brother’s suicide and then went back to their life, including growing up with a mother who was an alcoholic and verbally abused her children. This definitely was not the situation in my family. In my story, the sister was filled with guilt and she felt that she should have been able to stop her brother, especially as she was volunteering at a telephone distress center. I made up the name of the distress centre and what “happens” at the fictional distress centre did not happen with my actual volunteering. For those interested, the story “My Brother’s Keeper” was published in the Canadian Authors Association Toronto branch anthology, Gathered Streams (Hidden Brook Press, 2010). Check out http://www.canauthorstoronto.org/anthology.html.
So, if you want to create fiction from fact, here are a few pointers about what to do/what not to do.
- Use only the incident/event as your idea to kick-start your story. The story must be fiction.
- Use fictional characters and events, not the actual people or their names. It’s best to have characters with different age brackets and different backgrounds than in real life.
- Change the setting, perhaps even the time line.
- Use your emotions to propel you forward, but also keep in mind that this must be fiction. You are using your emotions from the real happening to help you dig deeply when writing your story.
- As this is fiction, you can have a different outcome than the one connected to the real-life trigger event. Just make sure that the outcome works with the story.
- Make sure the story is fiction. I can’t emphasise this enough. Real life (mine) incident – one of my cousins blasted me for writing true stories about the family history. However, she said she wouldn’t mind fictionalized accounts. I’m not going to take that at face value. Readers have the knack for finding themselves or someone they know in fiction, even when it isn’t true. But we do absorb what happens in our life. And that is often the trigger for story ideas.
For another take on writing fiction from fact, check out Writing Truth or Fiction http://www.be-a-better-writer.com/truth-or-fiction.html The author here actually used a real character in her novel. And so do other authors. Here’s another take on this http://www.thebookladysblog.com/2009/08/26/writing-real-people-into-fiction/
For those of you in the Toronto, Ontario, Canada area, I’ll be teaching a Crafting the Short Story Workshop at the Runnymede Branch of the Toronto Public Library, Tuesday, March 6, 6.30 p.m. It’s free. You just need to sign up at the library. Check this one out at http://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/programs-and-classes/categories/book-clubs-writers-groups.jsp and click on “Runnymede.”
Only Child Writes