Saturday, December 20, 2008

I Stole Your Life (And I Ain't Giving It Back)

I steal people. I watch them and I take their lives, half-real and half-imagined, and make them my own. I co-opt. I borrow them for awhile, take 'em out for a little joyride. Who knows where?
I don't. But I'm going anyway. I'll bring 'em back, you have my word...

You ever sit on a bus (or a train, or maybe waitinig in line, or sitting in a cafe) and hear a bit of conversation between two people... and suddenly find yourself writing a script in your head? Extrapolating a story out of that bit of dialogue, out of happenstance, out of the random observation of people met only by chance? I do. I stumble on these little fragments of life involving unknown people and I find myself following them home (in my head. Really, I swear...), hypothesizing events and relationships, navigating trials and conflicts. An affair, a fight, a murder, a sad little suicide...

Is it a writerly thing? I have a feeling it might be. I have a feeling writers see the world in stories, and they see these stories much more clearly and often than most folk. I could be wrong, but I don't think I am. I think writers often have a natural drive to organize things into narratives. Maybe to better understand these things... or maybe just because that's the way our brains are wired.

I steal my own life, too. I'm always rewriting the past, fictionalizing it in ways that might be more interesting, more dramatic, more filled with the conflict and tension that any good story should have. Simple curiosity, perhaps... What if I'd gone with that girl to that place...? What if I hadn't left that building just in time...? And if the past is open for reconstruction, the future must be open, too. A little pre-writing, anyone? It's like overly imaginative life planning. I always wanted to be a secret agent...

So, am I right? You a thief? Stole some lives, did you... so how was the joy ride? You take 'em anywhere shiny and new?


Bookworm1605 said...

Invasion of the body snatchers--ahem, excuse me, life snatchers.

When I first started writing I assumed (not sure why) that the best way to come up with genuine, realistic characters was to copy (or in your words-steal) real people that I know. I tried using various friends and family members as stand-ins.

And it was horrible.

Imagining your brother, or father-in-law, or boss, as one of your main characters is...distracting at best, disastrous at worst.

Now I try to start with the basics, sprinkle a few neuroses in, and allow my characters to grow orgainically like some mad scientist's chia pet.

However, I'm not naive enough to believe that my characters are completely of my own imagining. I'm sure subconsciously I steal mannerisms and habits, especially bad habits, from people around me.

I think, though, you are probably talking about more than just building characters. I read somewhere that being a writer is not a job, it's a way of thinking. You're always observing, absorbing, masticating and digesting the things around you.

I find myself taking things that I see going on around me and extrapolating them out to extreme scenarios. We live not far from a major highway and it's not unusual to hear loud thumps and crashes in the distance--likely big trucks bouncing as they slow coming into town. But every time I hear something like that I look at the treeline and imagine that something--some slavering, titanic beast is about to peer over the treetops. It's the same with people and their interations. As you said, overheard conversations, after they recede from earshot, turn sinister--become complex plots posited by plotting aliens. (couldn't think of another 'p' word for that senctence) And of course, a potential story raises its head.

So, yeah, I think all writers are thieves at heart.

Wanu said...

Mmm, when Joielle mentioned overhearing snippets of conversation I thought it would make a good roll to the next discussion.

Yes, absolutely, and there's one overheard snippet that has remained with me for ages, though I don't think there's a story in it.

I was on a train, looking out the window, and zoned into this guy on his mobile phone. He wore a business suit, and we were on a commuter run, and he spoke with all the determined energy of a 'get it done' managerial kinda guy, so I was very surprised when he told the person on the other end of the phone, "Yeah, it's what they believe, it's all education-eduction-work-work-work-die, its their culture."

So incongruous! I might expect a hippie to say something like that, but not an obviously educated man on a commuter route!! Who was he talking about? His peers? The directors? The Japanese? And what was he doing with his own life that was so different? This one really invaded my thoughts.

So, yeah, once you've been sparked by something like that, either because it is intriguing, or outright incongruous, there isn't a huge leap to dragging that character onto paper and throwing the proverbial stones at them.

I gotta admit, though, I tend to throw an awful lot more than stones. I have a tendency to go straight for the jugular and kill off their nearest and dearest, or put the character's own life in danger. Maybe I should take my rebellious business commuter and throw him off the train? Then he can perhaps prove to me that his life is not just 'education-work-die' when he comes a' huntin'.

I often say that my character Chloe came about because of my mate's ex claiming to be a 'preparation fairy'. Yes, that idea stuck and drove me potty, but there were other snippets to Chloe's creation, and another one came from the mate himdelf.

We were at a Chicago's Rock Cafe, and two members of the barstaff moved onto a short plinth just off the bar with bottles of Tia Maria and Bailey's, and started pouring the drinks directly into the mouths of revellers. Brilliant idea! I've never drunk so fast in all my life! Anyway, there was one barman, and one barwoman (barmaid?), and both were very sexy. While we were cramming forward to claim our share of the alcoholic flow, direct from the hands of that leggy, sultry barmaid, my mate overheard this guy nearby, saying, "Oh my god, she's gorgeous!"

The guy who said this looked like a real nerd/geek, like he'd just walked off the set of one of those HIgh School movies - I mean, he had the short, fairly naff hair, big glasses, and even a long face.

My mate took it upon himself to provide some life coaching to this guy. He said to him, "There's no reason why you can't be taking her home tonight." He went on to give the guy a right pep-talk, bolstering him into making a move. My mate was being genuine, but I remember this very clearly because I disagreed, but didn't want to say it in front of that guy. It would've been like good-cop, bad-cop.

I think you couldn't give a guy the kind of confidence to seduce and carry off a random woman on the strength of just a few soundbytes. It would take an awful lot more than that.

And that's where Chloe's life's work came from. She's like a mixture of my mate's ex, and my mate himself! Just a damned sight crazier and more thorough in her methods.

So, yeah, definitely. Life stealing on the strength of overheard fragments of conversation.

I think writers get this a lot, there is always something overheard which piques interest, and then that drift into, 'I wonder...'

Ink said...

I must say that 99.9% of my little stolen bits and invented stories from life are never used, at least in terms of actual stories. Mostly they're just a brief dream in my head, vanishing away within moments. Sometimes, though, they spark something more lasting. These ones tend to become those stick little floaters I mentioned in my other post. They float around up there, waiting to bump into other ideas and make a little eureka connection.

So who's got the next post idea? Were-wombats? London as the center of the literary universe? The Philosophy of Weird Menace? Lay it on me!

Ben said...

i steal from myself, more than anything. not that my life is full of huge, interesting plots and conflicts and things, but i find (often without having intended it) that characters' foibles are mine, my anecdotes become their experieces, &c. usually with minor varaiations to make them fit or to make them more interesting. it's not the big parts of any stories i tell, but the lower-level details and more every day events.

Ink said...

I'm like that myself, Ben. I steal details from my own experience and then use them in a story (though often with very different connotations for the characters than for me). It's one of the things, I think, that makes finding those perfect details easier for contemporary stuff than for historical or fantastical or futuristic stuff... though maybe that's just me.

Ms Kitty said...

I think that one the best things about being middle-aged is that I have this entire 'misspent' youth that I can exploit.

I'm like a magpie, I take bits of this and bits of that to make characters. I steal what bits I need for the characters while I put them into a plot.

I work hard to avoid "Mary Sue" at all costs. I try to give even stock characters a bit of personality.

It's fun to steal mannerisms, but there is a danger to that. I wouldn't want someone close to me to see themselves in a story of mine.

Now, life situtations in general are fair game for plots. There is nothing stranger than real life.

Ink said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ink said...

It's like that old story...

Agent: "This whole thing with the cow simply ain't believable."

Writer: "But it's a real fact! It really happened!"

Agent: "Maybe so. But it still ain't believable."

To steal the words of Indiana Jones (and mangle them slightly...):

"Stories are about truth. If it's facts you want, head to Dr. Jones' archaelogy class down the hall."

Though the factuality of the facts in those movies might be disputed a bit... :)

Wanu said...

What? You mean nazis didn't steal the arc of the covenant and get their faces melted?

Ink said...

Oh no, that part is totally true.

Anonymous said...

Holy cow! I'm not alone. I thought I was just borderline schizophrenic. When I hear a noise on the roof, I immediately imagine an airliner/comet/dead body/Sasquatch/Alien/flying seconds from falling on my head. You should see me during hurricane season.

As far as colorful characters, I just call any member of my family to hear the latest story. I've actually had to tone down some of their personality quirks I've used in writing. This Christmas, my dad gave my 82 yr old grandmother a giant thong. She pulled it on over her clothes and wore it during Christmas dinner. It was damn difficult to keep a straight face when she said the blessing. The weirdest part, we all thought she looked hot.

Plus, for reasons unknown, nutjobs love me (shut-up Wanu). And they always find me in the grocery store.

Once in a parking lot, a guy asked me to keep his grocery cart full of pineapples (apparently ALL of the pineapples) from rolling away so he would have his hands free to remove the chains wrapped around his car. Seriously, he had big heavy padlocked chains wrapped around his car like ribbons on a present.

Anonymous said...

^That's me...GingerlyWrites