Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Writing From Life

An interesting thing happened on my way back from a family reunion two weeks ago. At the end of a very long five hour flight (redundancy intended) between Baltimore and San Diego, a passenger left his seat as we were landing, ran to the front, grabbed the door handles and yelled, “Let me off this plane! I have to get off the plane!”

Oh yeah.   

What did he know that we didn’t?

Two male flight attendants tackled him and pinned him down as we all watched, dumbfounded.  It seemed like an eternity before the wheels finally touched down on the runway, but in reality, it all happened so fast.

What goes through your mind when stuff like this happens?  Initially, you can’t really believe what you’re seeing because you have no frame of reference for it.  It’s not every day that someone goes haywire on a flight and tries to get off before the plane has landed.  Fellow passengers glance around at each other, just as startled and nervous and disbelieving as you, seeking some kind of verification that it’s really happening. 

Like I said, it all happened so fast.  It wasn’t until I’d disembarked and medicated myself with contraband (Starbucks white chocolate mocha) that the reality of it set in.  Wow.  It could have turned out so differently if… no, we’re not going there.   But I wouldn’t be a writer, if at some point I didn’t shamelessly wonder how I could use this in a story.  Seriously, I did.  And after the dust settled, I bet you would, too.

We all write from life.  That’s what gives our stories authenticity.  We process our experiences through the thoughts and actions of our characters.  We hope they can make sense of it for us.  This should make us more observant, and perhaps it does.

Sometimes it’s not the big things that ground a scene or experience, but the small insights and observations that make it real.  Here are some things I remember:
  • The young man didn’t struggle after he was tackled.  He grew docile and cooperative immediately.  Had he been subdued or was he biding his time?
  • He looked like any other 20-something in shorts and a t-shirt. He could have been my son…or yours.  Tragically innocent or understatedly evil?
  • The woman beside me in the aisle seat said that if she’d known he was coming, she would have stuck out her foot to trip him. She went on about how we all need to step up and be proactive about safety now. It brought out her inner ninja.
  • Several passengers were gracious and wondered if he had mental health issues, rather than making assumptions of malicious intent.
  • The young man was barefooted.  The security officer found his flipflops at his seat. If he’d been intentional about causing harm, wouldn’t he have slipped his feet into his shoes before running to the front? It seemed more likely that he panicked and reacted to some turbulence.
  • The whole incident seemed to go on forever because all the window shades were drawn to keep out the heat and we had no idea how close we were to landing other than a vague sense of descent.  I remember thinking (praying, really) “ Come on, touch down!”
  • It occurred to me how odd that all three flight attendants were brawny males.  When does that ever happen? In fiction, it would sound contrived, but in reality it was ordained, I think. 
  • Even the babies and little children were quiet. There was a moment of silence – a black hole in time where we were standing outside looking in – before people started whispering and questioning.
  • I realized that I hadn’t gotten up from my seat in five hours and I needed to (ahem) ‘go’. The five minute wait in our seats for the air marshal to show up was interminable.
The right story might not come along to use my experience, but what I observed in the reaction of such a large group of people to this situation was valuable. I know how a simple thing like altering the physical setting (having the shades drawn, adding some turbulence) can disorient the protagonist, slow down time and heighten suspense.  How one person can find her inner ninja while another sympathizes with a potentially volatile and dangerous character.  How something as simple as shoes left behind can suggest the difference between spontaneous or premeditated actions, a confused soul or a bad guy.

Every writer makes use of personal experiences, but if we fail to look past the obvious event and dissect the nuances of the scene and the reactions of those involved, we may miss the chance to incorporate them into story.

As a side note, when I had time to consider it all, I was deeply moved and grateful for the grace shown to us all on that flight.  God is good!  And I sent an email to the airline commending the flight attendants for the quick response.

How have you incorporated personal experience into your stories?  We’d love to hear!


Susie Finkbeiner said...

Oh, Debbie! Something about traveling through the air certainly can bring out something different in us, can't it?

Last night I was visiting a friend and her husband in the hospital. We shared stories and laughed and got serious and laughed some more. Her husband kept saying, "You should write this story into a novel".

But the part of the evening that moved me, that made me want to write, was the very end. Watching my friend (one of the sweetest women I know) whisper a prayer into his ear just before I walked her to her car. A moment of Godly marriage. Looking into that moment that is rarely seen from the outside. So tender. Beautiful. True.

Of all the stories from last night, the small prayer is the one that must be captured.

Patti Hill said...

Let me count the ways...a lot! So often, when interviewing for research, my subject will ask, "You're not going to tell MY story, are you?" I reassure them that I'm looking for a range of possibilities in human behavior. What could possibly happen that I would never think of. I may not use the exact experience, but I shamelessly glean the emotions for my characters.

I must admit this: One of my sons said after reading my first book, "Mom, it was a little weird seeing pieces of my life in someone else's story." With family, I guess, I'm not so subtle.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Susie, great insight! Human interaction is the best part of the story. I hope your friend's husband recovers soon.

Pamela King Cable said...

Fantastic post! A writer's ears and eyes stay wide open, our brains recording each movement in detail during something like this. There's no shame for me in wrting from life. We own everything that happens to us, so I say use it! Even a mundane trip to the grocery store or a walk out to the mailbox could end up becoming an important part in a scene, with a twist or two.

A simple walk to an old cemetery on top of a West Viriginia mountain where I encountered not only family members who fought in the Civil War, but a lone black bear meandering around the stones gave me plenty to record for future use. My computer is chocked full of words, phrases, paragraphs, overheard dialogue, and scenes stashed away for just the right place in a story. Someone asked me that old cliche question recently during an interview. Do writers write what they know? My reply; "They write what they know, who they know, and what they live."

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Patti, my kids have said the same thing. I tell them no one will know it's them if they don't tell anyone. There has been material I have so wanted to use but felt it was too identifiable. Sigh...
Pamela, do you have a system of keeping track of all your observations?

Cherry Odelberg said...

Ever genetically accommodating, my inner empathizer might have thought, "misplaced, ill calculated young person's joke run amuck? " The youngsters I have known are as likely to be the jokesters as the three welcome heros you mentioned.

Cherry Odelberg said...

Oh, as for the question about incorporating personal experience: One family member, on recognizing his character donation, mistakenly thought I had written an entire manuscript as fact not fiction, and gladly assumed the rest of the narration as his biography.

Samantha Bennett said...

I absolutely loved your line about the inner ninja! And the detail with the shoes left by his seat. That reminds me of something Eugene Peterson said in his video, something about all the details mattering in story and in life. Love this story and the storyteller's perspective. :)

Anonymous said...

Debbie, this is an exceptional post. You so captured the feel of those few frightening minutes on that flight. Not just your own emotinos and thoughts, but those of the people around you. A scary experience, I'm sure, but one you will glean from sometime in your writing future. So, so glad it turned out as it did. Yes, God is good.

Bonnie Grove said...

Amazing article, Debbie.

I love what you have to say about not lifting the story itself out of your experience and dumping it into a novel (though, this sometimes happens), but rather lifting the exquisite details of time, place, foreshadowing, characterization, and story world and transferring it all into your writer's tool box.

This is just one example of why you are the exceptional writer you are.

Anonymous said...

I am using our current family circumstances as the theme in my WIP--the destructive power of secrets. But I cannot lift the story itself from life. It's working for me. :)

Anonymous said...

(By the way, the secret wasn't within our family. It was just trying to destroy it. Thank God for the power of Christ to work through family!)

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Wow! I took 11 flights this summer with only two 'Is there a doctor on board?' 's and one, "Please remain seated while we transfer the patient."
Three years ago I took 14 flights and the last one tested my strength to remain seated. I was the one stuffed against the window. Otherwise, and without the power of God in me I might have been that young man. And yes, I use that experience, that longing for the forbidden fruit that kills in my story.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Cherry, that is so funny about your family member! At least he didn't take offense.
Thanks Samantha & Sharon! Bonnie: thanks & pshaw...
Vonilda, I'm glad God has the situation under control & you're gleaning wisdom from it.
Henrietta, once a flight attendant read us the instructions for a crash landing while as we were descending in a Denver snowstorm. I guess we don't have a lot of choices when we travel.
Eleven flights this summer? Whoa, girl.