For the writing class I’m taking I had to write a story in a genre that I don’t usually write in. It was supposed to be about something that had happened to me in high school, or to someone close to me. So, in case you don’t know me, I’m old. I went to high school a looooong time ago. I’m not one of those people with a great memory who remembers all the things. Truth be told, I think I remember the sad or traumatic things mostly. And I remember a glimmer of this thing and that thing… sometimes. But I felt like I’d mined my high school stories already (or at least the ones I’m willing to share). So I did what any self-respecting writer would do: I texted my daughters.
Me: Tell me a story about something that happened in high school. I need it for a paper I’m writing. It can be a story about anything… 😬
Daughter: how about the time you didn’t let us go to radiohead so we screamed about it in the kitchen during spencer’s drum lesson
Me: I don’t have to be in the story (especially as the bad guy)
But then they helped. I mean, I did have to push a little until they each coughed something up. They both told me some stories though. There were some similarities to a couple of them. Some similar settings (on a boat!) and in what happened (adventures!). Well, sort of. And I was feeling some themes. So I picked a bit from one and a bit from another, and then I made up a bunch of stuff. I used the first names of some of their high school classmates and friends, for fun. I think it came out ok… I dusted the whole thing with a touch of magical realism (genre assignment: done!).
Then my daughters wanted to see it! I have to say, I felt a little funny showing it to them. Because I’d taken stuff from their lives, things that had really happened to them, and I had run with it. I made shit up! And it occurred to me that in the novel I’m writing (did you all know I’m writing a novel?!) I have characters that are sort-of-kind-of based on people in my life. But not really. Because I write fiction. So even if I take a phrase that someone I know might say in real life, and put it in the mouth of one of my characters, I’m not trying to have my character be the person who really says that thing.
I think why I ended up being ok with showing them the story is because a shit ton of mother love ended up in it. It was never really about either of them. It was their life events acting as writing prompts. I definitely didn’t tell their stories. Because you know I would never try to co-opt that from anyone (and especially my own children!).
It got me to thinking though. I believe that as writers we need to be fearless about what we put on the paper. And we can’t help but mine our own lives and the lives of those around us. But sometimes it feels like such a fine line between appropriation and inspiration.
What do you think? Do you beg, borrow, or steal your stories?