There. It’s out in the open now. I steal things. I will continue to steal things. You’ll know about it when I do, although you might not recognise the theft.
Writers steal things. A gesture here, an expression there. Sometimes writers steal whole stories about people. An ex of mine got nearly an entire book of poetry out of our relationship, although if you didn’t know that it was really me and her, you wouldn’t have known. (Hello Catherine, how are you?). Another acquaintance took my adoption story and the adoption story of another ex of mine (I’m not that promiscuous really – just old enough to have quite a bit of history) and got a paragraph out of us. In a 500-and-something page book there was one small paragraph that was – if you knew us – recognisably us. I was thrilled. “Hey look – we got a paragraph in A’s book. Isn’t that neat”. My ex – not so much. “How dare A” was her response.
I still don’t understand why my ex was so upset. It was a very good book and A is regularly nominated for writers awards and speaks at writers festivals and the like. It wasn’t as if A had taken our respective adoption stories and portrayed us poorly or unfavourably. We would only be recognised by people who knew us and knew that A knew us which is a very small set of people; you could count those folks on your fingers and still have fingers left over spare. And between us we did have unusual adoption stories. So what if A took our story and got a paragraph out of it. My ex didn’t feel the same way. She felt that A had intruded into our lives, and bared everything for the all the world to see.
I’ve stolen things too. The first poem that I had published was a true story, and there on the page was me and a dear friend and her kids. (You can read that poem at the end of this post). Coincidentally the poem was about theft too but that’s just coincidence. We still talk about that day and that poem and as sometimes happens with friends that have been a part of each others life for a long time, we’ve developed a shorthand, a shared language about it. All it takes are a few words and we’re both smiling, and often laughing.
I’m a reasonably straightforward person and it makes sense to me that if I’m to write about something, it’s useful if I’ve seen it, or experienced it. It’s not essential by any means – that’s what imagination is for – but it doesn’t go astray. So I watch people. I eavesdrop in public, in restaurants and coffee shops. And I take things. A gesture here, and a way of moving there, and that story that I overheard last week when we were out for dinner in Big Town Down The Road. I’ve stolen the whole town that I live in and some of my neighbours for a short story. I have a idea for a novel bubbling away and a manager from a job a few years makes a great character. He demonstrated passive aggressive behaviour better than I could ever imagine it.
As a fiction writer I have absolutely no qualms about stealing things. In that way I’ve been writing about ‘real’ people, places, events and things for years. Sometimes people recognise themselves. Sometimes they don’t.
It’s interesting making the move from poetry and fiction to memoir. By it’s very nature, memoir has ‘real’ people in it, with ‘real’ events. If those elements of the story weren’t real – and I’m using that term pretty loosely anyway – it wouldn’t be memoir, it would be fiction. Memoirists will tell you that they might have combined two people into one, or left out an event or three, but fundamentally memoir is about people, places, events and things that are in some way real.
Making the move to memoir has brought some new challenges in sharing and honesty. It’s my memoir so I’m in control of what I share about me and how I do it. It’s the people that I care about that I’ve spent sleepless nights considering.
More in the next post…
And here’s that poem
Theft on a Sunday Afternoon
So there we were:
I’d like to tell you
that The Tree was:
Green and lush
Reaching for the sky
I’d like to tell you
that The Tree held memories of:
Shade in summer,
Children laughing in its branches,
and home-made jam in spring
it barely reached the verandah roof.
and its leaves had a brown sort of tinge.
It made the front room always dark,
and the kids slipped on the soft dark fruit.
So we got chopping
and the tree began to tilt
and the kids got worried about the letterbox.
But we kept chopping
and talked about role models
and pretended we didn’t mind blisters at all.
Just as we knew we were going to do it,
a few more strokes and it’d be down
and it looked like we’d miss the letterbox;
we told the kids to stand out of the way,
we leant and pushed,
and then one more…………………………
It was just then that
some man walking past
ran in the gate and said
“Look out love, here’s how it’s done”
gave one big shove
and the thing went over.
the kids drifted off
and the tree just lay there
next to the letterbox
and the blisters began to hurt.