As you read this, I am driving home from New York City having just dropped off my daughter at NYU. She’s a freshman this year, so all of this is pretty new to me. The last-minute shopping, the packing, the move-in day and orientation and getting settled. The bills — oh my GOD the bills. And underlying all of it, the emotions that come with seeing my eldest child go off to college: excitement on her behalf, sadness at the thought of her leaving home, happiness at the thought of her leaving home (yeah, some of these are pretty mixed), trepidation at all that she has to face in the coming years — we’ve been taking care of her for so long, and while she is bright and mature and confident, is she ready? I am more aware than I have ever been of my age, of the swiftness with which time passes, of the fact that, at least for this child, most of my parenting is done.
All of this, of course, is what a friend of mine refers to as “Grist for the Mill,” by which she means fodder for future stories and books. Writers are pack-rats. At least I am; I never throw away anything. If I’m working on a book, and I wind up cutting a large section of text, I don’t simply delete it. I copy and paste it into a file of scraps so that if I need to I can use it later in that book or in a future project. But being a pack-rat means also holding onto memories of emotions, experiences, conversations. It means that, in a sense, nothing is so personal that it can’t be stored away so that at some point it can find its way into a story.
That probably sounds incredibly crass. I suppose in a way it is. But it’s also as honest as I can be. Many years ago, when I was still working on revisions of my first novel, Children of Amarid, I lost my mother. She had been through a long and debilitating battle with lung cancer, and my father had been there with her, every step of the way, dying a little bit himself with each day he had to nurse her and witness her decline. I wanted to work through my own pain at losing her; I wanted to lose myself in my work on the book. But I couldn’t. I was distracted; I was mourning.
Until, as I rewrote a key scene, I used as a point of view character an older man who had recently lost his beloved wife.
For nearly two years he watched her waste away, taking care of her as best he could. The local healers were powerless against the illness, and his own magic could not reach the disease that raged within her. He could ease her pain for a time, but that was all. Gradually it took her, bit by bit: her joy, her beauty, her spirit, and finally, mercifully at the end, her life.
The character’s name was Niall, but for this passage, and for several of the others, he was my father. At first I felt odd using such personal emotions in my work, and yes, I felt guilty as well. This was many years ago, and I was still figuring out what it meant to be a writer. But I think my father would have understood (he died before that first book was published), and so would my mom. Using the grief, the pain, the stark images that were so much a part of my real life helped me through those difficult months. They also got me writing again.
Of course, “Grist for the Mill” is not always painful. In 2005-2006, my wife, daughters, and I lived in Australia for a year. While I continued to write, and my wife took her Sabbatical in a biology lab in Wollongong, we also explored, discovering a land that was both familiar and beautifully, wonderfully novel. Later, when I wrote my Blood of the Southlands trilogy, in which characters from my Winds of the Forelands series move to a new land, I drew heavily upon that experience.
Just as eventually, after I have had time to process what I am feeling now, I will use the experience of dropping my daughter off at college in a story or book. The circumstances won’t be exactly the same; the emotions will be blended with others appropriate to the particular circumstances of my point of view character. But the emotions of this episode in my life will inform that writing, as emotions and memories always do. I may use them in a month; I may need to let them percolate for a few years. But all of them are Grist for the Mill. I will hoard them, file them away in my head until they are ready and needed. I’m a writer, and this is part of what I do.
Have you drawn upon key emotional moments in your personal life to strengthen a passage in your writing? Care to talk about it? Care to share a brief (very) excerpt?David B. Coe http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com http://magicalwords.net