Facts are the potato chips of life for me. I crunch down on one after another. I test out assorted dips. I eat until the bowl is empty.
What does this mean as far as fiction is concerned? Everything and nothing. Despite what most readers think, my stories are not transcripting of the wonderful/horrible events of my life. Neither are they (consciously) therapy. I am appalled by some of my characters. Others have courage and conviction that I, too often, lack. I actually have a great affection for many authors whose work is thinly disguised autobiography, but that isn’t me.
For me, facts in fiction are the road away from truth. The truth is rich and compelling and emotional. The facts get in the way. I am not of the “live it, write it” Hemingway school.
This does not mean that I don’t take notes on my life. I do. But just as journalism is the rough draft of history, journalism (for me) is the rough draft of fiction. (Or the rough draft of the rough draft.) Notes on the agonies and joys of life, whether written in loving detail (with a specific audience in mind) or simply thought through in detail are essential to holding onto moments. Algis Budrys told me years ago that an unarticulated memory was soon lost, and I believe that’s mostly true. So I consciously work through any event with emotion content. But none of this makes it into fiction verbatim from notes.
How do facts, the facts of my life, make it into my fiction? The primary route for me is via an actor’s approach. I hit a place in a story where I know the character is in an important emotional space. For instance, I had a character who, to save her life, needed a real experience of closeness with her mother. I shuffled through several with my own mother. And this may sound weird, but I shared them with my character. One provoked a memory she had. And, as she told it to me, I took it down. It was fresh and full of an amazing mix of hurt and wonder. She was telling me the truth. It went into the story.
And that is how I use the facts, the pieces of my life, in fiction. Of course, I love historical facts and scientific facts. I marble my work with all the little nuggets I pick up regularly, especially the weird and the wonderful. But the emotionally lade facts of my life do not get transcribed.
In fact, each one is aged. For me, as I put together my work, the more immediate the experience, the less likely that I can deal with it effectively. This is because the things that haunt me at the moment are intricately attached to larger contexts that I take for granted. Ever have anyone tell you their dreams? Usually, it is not a pleasant experience. This isn’t because the person telling you lacks passion — that’s alway evident. It’s precisely because every image they share is embedded in a complete, unexamined and (to them) obvious world of associations. Only a true genius can take these, distill them out in realtime, and re-present them to an audience. I don’t have that talent. So I consciously avoid taking memories that are too fresh and using them in fiction. (And I rarely talk about my dreams, no matter how excited I am about them.)
One more thing (and this I learned from speechwriting). The facts of my life emerge, they aren’t referenced. That is, I don’t say, “good place for a life experience — what’s in the notebooks?” I only use experiences that come readily to mind. Why? Because otherwise they lack authenticity. I think I was the only speechwriter I know (of dozens) who did not have a book of quotations on his/her desk. I only used quotes if they occured to me as I wrote. I did not find good quotes and insert them into speeches. And I bet that I could find the latter in any speech. They show up all the time on TV, saying “look at me!” Such quotes are distracting. They are phoney. No thanks. So, no thanks to the inserted memory. Ugh.
The facts, for me, come out of conversations with my characters. They are all aged so that I can provide the proper contexts. And they all emerge from the situation. No insertions.
Truth is what we read fiction for, but it is emotional truth, not (usually) the sequential facts of personal experiences.