How I People My Stories

Any writer out there who has shared their work can tell you that they field two questions the most of any others asked. One, where do you get your inspiration? Two, do you put people you know in your stories?

My answer to question one is glib and simple: everywhere. The ‘What if…’ that is the genesis to any story can be sparked by anything. Anything. Sometimes at the most inconvenient moments.

Question two is far more fun to field, particularly because I have to think about it.

mirror by Paul Keller via Flickr

mirror by Paul Keller via Flickr

I would never consider myself a narcissist, I just don’t like myself enough to be obsessed with me (sorry self), but I do put myself in my stories. Sometimes on purpose, other times it’s kind of a surprise when I go back and read them. It’s important to write what you know, so I try to write from emotional places I know when I can. Writing has always been part catharsis for me, and sharing an emotional problem with a character and then writing them out of it/showing them learning how to live with it, is healing for me.

Not all of my characters share my anxieties and fears, or all of my anxieties and fears. You can’t force personality aspects on characters that are unnatural for them. Neither do I put my characters in my exact shoes and have them live my life experiences. I would hate for someone to read this and then read a story I’ve written where something truly horrific happened to a character and think that that’s me incognito. I am not my characters, my characters are not me. We might share a few characteristics, but that’s as far as the connections should go.

As far as people other than me, I don’t consciously or intentionally put them in my stories. I know new authors always go through moments of terror about a certain person reading their work and then accusing them of putting them in their story. I’ve never had that fear. But then I haven’t written or shared a ton of writing.

I don’t see people I know in my writing. Perhaps I’ve riffed off traits I admire in people I know, but I’ve never done it specifically. I’m wondering if I may have a tendency to do the opposite, to take people I know and disguise them. I really don’t know. I’m going to have to wait for an accusation.

I like to write characters who are willing to do things I’d never consider attempting. It’s a way to do the outrageous safely.

Regardless, I am no Steinbeck or Munro. I’m not writing out my life story in a mirror town in order to veil my autobiography. If I wrote those books they would be very boring. I would be very bored writing them. They’d most likely devolve into far more interesting odes devoted to my cats.

Now, if I could go live the lives of the characters I write….I don’t know if I’d be excited or petrified. I like indoor plumbing and creature comforts far too much to go trekking off with the women I populate my work with. Honestly, they’d probably ditch me at the beginning of the adventure. For my own good.

Abandoned Gas Station On The National Road In Ohio by Mark Spearman via Flickr. This is the kind of place they'd leave me. Though why we'd be in Ohio...

Abandoned Gas Station On The National Road In Ohio by Mark Spearman via Flickr. This is the kind of place they’d leave me. Though why we’d be in Ohio…

Part of My Process: A Positive Lack of Focus

I’m a writer new to the professional game, hence I read a lot of tips. More than I should. A lot of the advice involves focus and discipline, like they’re one and the same. Looking back over the course of my life I have to say that I don’t agree with that parallel.

Time and again I hear comments about focus that usually centre on whether people are good or bad at it. The general consensus is that people with “good” focus stick to a single task and see it done well. People with bad focus either take on too much and leave loose threads or they get bored with their single task and don’t see it through.

I’m not even going to tackle the gender associations each of these sides has. That is an argument for another day.

I work with someone who has ADD; she’s trained herself over the years to focus on one project at a time so that she can see to its completion. Seems like a solid plan, right? Except that single project is usually all she can focus on. Seriously. Nothing else can or will penetrate her head if she has a task she must see to. NOTHING.

In a work environment where everyone has multiple roles and responsibilities, single-minded focus just does not work. This personality quirk has a tendency to drive me nuts because I’m the exact opposite.

I’m a natural multitasker and I’m good at it. I can juggle multiple tasks succinctly and see them all through to near-perfect completion (I say near-perfect because I am not perfect). Sometimes, like many humans, I forget others aren’t exactly like me, which is why I get frustrated with people who can’t multitask.

What does this have to do with writing? Everything. At least for me.

The ability to research multiple topics, come to understand casts of characters, write story notes about every new project that pops into my head, blog, and move from story to story without getting stressed or confused by all of the different pieces enables me to keep my writing spark thriving.

Months ago, I hit a wall with my main work in progress (MWIP). My protagonist is at a dark emotional point in her life that I hit years ago. I like writing from a well I know and understand, but at the same time it’s extremely difficult to grapple with that mindset and relive it in order to get it on paper. Things got to the point that I just stopped writing. I couldn’t get out of the emotional pit I’d re-entered for my story’s sake and it was affecting my day to day life.

Frustrated, I wrote about my problem on Anxiety Ink. The feedback I received was incredible. I’d been trying to be a good, focused writer and not abandon my WIP. I don’t believe in writer’s block so I was determined to stick things out. A former elementary teacher used to give me heck for reading more than one book at a time because I’d mix things up. Eventually, I stopped reading altogether. If I couldn’t do it my way, I wasn’t going to do it his way.

Instead of embracing that stubbornness and writing another story, I listened to that voice and all those tips I’d read.

See how well that went?

Fellow writers told me to character head hop or even move on to another project until I was centred again. Thinking back, I feel stupid that I needed such obvious advice, and permission to step back. But I did. This is one of the reasons having a community of like-minded individuals is so important. They’ll pull your head out of the sand if you can’t do it yourself.

It was freeing to come back to my keyboard and write about something else. Anything else at that point. Taking a necessary breather was what both the story and I needed. Calling my break a breather, not abandonment, also soothed my psyche. I wasn’t a quitter, I just needed space to regroup.

I’ll tell you, the space has done wonders. I can actually think about my novel again. I’m neck deep in a short story project but my MWIP constantly spins the wheels of my subconscious. As do my other WIPs, but they need more time to mature.

My “lack of focus” is an integral part of my writing process. Just because I don’t have laser focus for one project doesn’t mean that I can’t buckle down when it counts. It doesn’t mean that I don’t get things done or take things seriously. I find my ability to task-hop keeps me refreshed and alert. And I always write myself notes so that I know where I left off and where I want to begin again.

That’s how I work in a nutshell. I know it drives some people crazy but I don’t listen to those people. I just keep writing.

As for that particularly nagging third grade teacher, he also told my mom that I have a gift for writing and to make sure I never abandon it. Thus I forgive him. And I still read more than one book at a time.