Most every writer I know tries to leverage weird occurrences into prose. You know, “What doesn’t kill you makes a great story….”
This drama-trauma connection is a chicken-or-the-egg thing: does a person write because he’s practicing a well-worn coping mechanism, or, do we create trauma so we have something to write about?
In grad school I remember a lecture by Tara Ison on the dangers of “mining one’s life for material.” Creating a zeitgeist of drama that takes off like a snowball down a hill. I saw examples of this in my classmates—and, I have to admit, myself. Since my final manuscript was in creative nonfiction, and since my subject was, mainly, a marriage I was trying to make sense of, sometimes I’d push the envelope off the page just to throw a little arc into the narrative.
For instance, the landscape of my marriage was festooned with piles of crap: water heaters, the entrails of a forty-year-old car, fiberglass pillars. When my “character” needed to confront her husband about the piles—when I needed some good, cadenced dialogue—I’d think about how to confront my own husband. But first, I’d go wandering amongst the detritus and move things around a little, so I could describe them with maximum impact. A piece of pvc pipe would make a much more active foil in the hands of my three-year-old, so there I would place it. Not proud of it, but I did it. And then I described it as if it had happened organically. (Though my impulse was to be self referential and cotton to the transgression.)
It’s back to that difference between the “What about?” of fiction, and the “What if?” of creative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction invites edge-blurring. Any shitty interaction you have with another person, say a road rage on the Interstate, or an altercation with a landlord, can be objectified and shaped into story. The consequence of this, at least in my experience, is that the experience becomes depersonalized, the emotion divested. I stayed in my marriage way too long because I wrote about it like an anthropologist on field assignment.
It’s interesting going back to fiction—mining someone else’s life for drama, or inventing drama altogether. Not as easy, this template-less design. That’s why I’m buying a pack of 3-by-5s today and framing up my outline with them. I’m a tactile writer, after all, I need to touch drama—even if I’m not living it.