I planned to write a somewhat snarky post about the latest trend working my last nerve. And then I came home from a freelance gig to find my building crawling with cops because a neighbor blew his brains out.
That kind of gets things in perspective.
I did not know this person, except by sight, but still, it’s incredibly sad. Add that to the fact that this is the second death in the same section of the building in six months, and it’s a little disconcerting.
It also provides a wonderful premise for fiction. There are at least a half a dozen fascinating scenarios set on the foundation of two deaths in neighboring apartments within six months. It could be an urban fantasy, a conspiracy theory, a contemporary drama, a mystery, a paranormal. Each of those choices would take the facts and use imagination to lead them in a different direction.
To those outside of writing and acting, that seems cold. But for those of us within this particular work, it’s the norm. Everything we experience, on every level, becomes material. That doesn’t mean we walk up to the grieving family and start telling our tales. But it means that, even with the personal response we have to a situation like this, the dis-ease and the sympathy we feel for the families of those involved, a part of us stands separate, as the observer. It’s integral to the work, and the work is integral to who we are.
That doesn’t mean we stand on the sidelines. If we see an accident, we are just as likely and have just as much responsibility to jump in and take action as anyone else. Chances are, we’re more likely to jump in and take action in a crisis, rather than turn our heads and walk away. We’re hardwired to see experience from the outside, absorb it into ourselves and understand it from the inside. Therefore, if we see someone in trouble, we’re more likely to actively help than many others.
But we’re also storing the experience for later use.
The next question then becomes, such as in the above situation, how much actual, factual information does the writer gather, and when? If I know what ACTUALLY happened in those two deaths, will it help or hurt the fictional scenarios I’m spinning?
When I was a less experienced writer, it hurt. The actual facts intruded on the story. Now, I’m able to separate the strands of fact and fiction with a more dispassionate eye, and I’d rather have the facts for my own personal closure, knowing I can still spin as many different and hopefully interesting stories out of it as I wish.
Sometimes a situation, however upsetting, sparks an idea that must be written down instantly. Other times, it takes years to absorb different elements, let it take shape, and emerge as a piece. Sometimes, it won’t even be recognizable as being connected to the original inspiration. In fact, the more experience you have as a writer, the more willing you are to let your characters and the situation evolve in an organic direction away from the original inspiration. You can always tell the newbies in a writing workshop. They put together a sloppy piece, full of emotion but no structure or foundation, and when you point out the flaws, they say, “But that’s how it happened.” “How it happened” doesn’t make it entertaining drama (or comedy or whatever) and yur job as a fiction writer is to take “what happened” and make it more interesting. Otherwise, you’re a journalist (unless you work for some of these so-called “news” organizations that actually create fiction and pass it off to the ignorant as fact) or a documentarian. And that’s a whole different issue with a different set of challenges. And, inside, the writer always remembers what sparks the creation.
That’s why genuine writers and artists are never bored. Because EVERYTHING is experience, no matter how frightening, irritating, or mundane. And everything can come out in the work, if you know how and are willing to process it.
–Devon Ellington is a full-time writer who publishes under a half a dozen names in both fiction and non-fiction. Follow the daily ups and downs of her writer’s life on Ink in My Coffee.