I had coffee with my friend Leslie yesterday, and the conversation turned, as it usually does, to writing. Leslie and I went through the MFA program together, and we’ve both worked since then on figuring out how in the world to support ourselves and write books.
I told Leslie about the book I’m currently reading, Ann Patchett’s The Magician’s Assistant. Now, in the past, Ann Patchett has disappointed me. I very much liked The Patron Saint of Liars, but I remember not loving the ending. I also really liked Bel Canto, but again, the ending killed it for me. I won’t be burned again – if the ending for this current book isn’t to my liking, it’ll probably be okay, because the rest of the book is so lovely. Truly, it’s heart-breaking, beautiful, so poignant, and just when I think I can’t take the sad beauty of it anymore, some new dramatic event happens to propel me forward. Put it on your list of books to read.
And as I was telling Leslie about the book, I noted that I imagine Ann Patchett must have had to do a lot of research on magic. The way she talks about magic in the book – how it’s done, how cards feel while being shuffled and dealt, how to saw a woman in half or make her disappear – it’s all so confident, so sure of itself, that I can only imagine 1) Ann Patchett has worked previously as a magician (or his assistant); 2) she did lots of research; or 3) as Leslie suggested, perhaps she just made it up.
I so often run into a road block with my characters because I try to pull too heavily from my life. This is not a bad thing. The old adage, “Write what you know,” is an adage for a reason: your memories and experiences have built up your story, the one only you can tell. But we run the risk of being too autobiographical. We run the risk of limiting our characters. I often think, “Oh, well, it was cool that I lived in Provincetown for three months and worked at a hotel that faced a mural, and while everyone was familiar with the mural, no one could tell me who had done it.” And then I think, so, great, I’ll make a character who lives in Provincetown and works at a hotel that faces a mural, blah blah blah. How limiting. Not a bad thing. Hotels and Provincetown and murals are perfectly fine things. But it’s a knee-jerk reaction: I did this, so I’ll write about it. I never think, hey, I’ve never worked as a designer of postage stamps, perhaps I’ll write about that. But it’s available. And the beauty of fiction is, I can just make it up.
I sometimes forget that: I forget that the innate property of fiction is that it’s not real. It’s therefore made up. It doesn’t have to have happened to me. It can, sure. I’m currently working on an outline of a novel where a girl moves away and travels on the Renaissance Festival circuit for over a year. I worked at a RenFest. Did I travel with them? Oh no. But I know people who did. I can talk about it. I can make that character talk about it. We’ll see how it goes.
On the flip side, I’m also writing a character who was a USO girl. I think she was a USO girl, anyway. Something with World War II. Something very Andrews sisters. Something that evokes the feeling I get when I watch their performance of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” I wasn’t a USO girl, nor was my grandmother. And you know what? I’m just going to make it up. Because I can.