Last year around this time I came to the realization that I didn’t want to write prose about myself and or my life experiences. It was at one of the writing workshops at the Bocas Litfest in Trinidad, facilitated by Lorna Goodison, one of my favorite Caribbean writers. We were looking at ways to write an outstanding opening for a story, a real attention grabber and, while sharing our respective works, I noted that most of the participants took inspiration from their life experiences or based their characters on someone they knew, a relative or friend. I felt a little weird for two reasons; firstly, my little opening was the offspring of cyber-punk and Caribbean folklore (currently in development and code-named VDHO) and secondly, it was not based on anyone I knew personally. The other participants were leaning towards memoire while I was on another planet, sort of.
It wasn’t just at that one workshop either. After Bocas, feeling shook out of an uncreative writing haze I revisited some story ideas from an old file, and saw conclusively that none of the ideas that I had in that file, none of the projects started, none of the ones I am currently cultivating are drawn from my life experiences. I have been encouraging a colleague of mine to write her memoir because she has lived a pretty extraordinary life so far, and I am always enthralled by her story telling chops whenever she recounts one of her experiences. At the same time, recently, whenever I think of writing stories my life isn’t the first thing that comes to my mind. I have used life experiences in the past, but lately they’re not the first sources of inspiration. I have been wondering what that means, if it means anything at all.
These thoughts came to mind yesterday after I was rummaging through my book cupboards trying to find resource material for a course. I found two diaries that I kept as a teenager in the Girls’ High School and as an A-Level student and began flipping through them.
I found myself laughing and shaking my head at the things I wrote back then. There was a Sade song for every hurt and disappointment brought on by an unrequited crush. There was a poem for every spontaneous overflow of emotion and there were these imaginary speeches, or speeches I would write to address someone who I couldn’t directly confront for whatever reason. Sort of like those letters to your ex that you write but never post. There were the occasional beefs with the parents, high brow sort of thing, Marxist vs. Capitalists, especially when I got to A-level and started doing Sociology. There were also “story arcs” that read like scenes from The Bold and the Beautiful, well maybe not as dramatic, but you get the idea. The public library was a sanctuary in the city, and I read where I was once discombobulated when I went to the library and found this guy there who was the villain for an extended story arc (he was a villain of the unrequited crush sort) and was all upset and thought seriously about finding a new sanctuary. I was especially upset because he wasn’t doing any work he was just there chilling with his friend. The library was not a place for “liming”, not for me anyway.
I didn’t actually abandon the library though.
There was also a lot of talk about becoming hardened by life (all 17 years of it at the time), being a hard-lined moralist , always knowing what was best for my friends, a tri-part new year’s resolution that involved losing as much weight as possible, being patient with parents and ignoring trouble makers. And there was once an expressed desire to go stand in the middle of playing field during a thunderstorm, just to see what would happen.
My reactions to seventeen year old me include smiling the knowing way adults do when they, having lived a little longer, hear teenagers complain about how hard life is, wanting to hug her for cultivating the habit of writing her thoughts and wanting to hug her generally.
I am missing Bocas this year. If I were able to attend any of the workshops, I still feel that I would want to totally make stuff up. But at least 17-year-old me has given me the option of a memoir if I chose to go in that direction, or at least some ideas to work into my make-believe stories.
Make-believe is always good.