I recently read an interview with a local writer whose debut novel has just been published. She talked about how she always carries a notebook around with her and writes down snippets of overheard conversation, how people will often find her in the bathroom at parties, madly scribbling.
I don't do that. It seems to not be a part of my nature. I used to think that made me a bad writer, that I wasn't always observing people acutely and using interesting conversations I'd heard and characters I'd met. Sure, I carry a notebook around with me, but that's usually to write down things my imagination dreams up before I forget them.
I think I did, once. I did it because I thought that was what I should do, and I certainly wrote descriptions of some interesting people I saw or met, but I don't think I have ever directly used them. I once saw a young girl standing at the counter of a cafe with her mother. From behind, she looked about ten and she wore a long pink cardigan, a pink floral skirt and frilly bobby socks. She also clutched in her hand a packet of Holiday Lights and a lighter. Then she turned around and I had a moment like Donald Sutherland must have had in the movie Don't Look Now, when the little girl in the red coat he has been following all over Venice, thinking it's the ghost of his daughter, turns out to be a wizened old crone. Who then stabs him.
I didn't get stabbed, but the little girl I had observed was actually about 35, still dressing like a child but smoking cigarettes.
Anyway, I dutifully wrote down a description of her in my notebook, but she never made it into any of my novels or short stories. Why would she?
Despite not jotting these things down anymore, I know that I do observe, in my way, and these observations get chucked on the pile with all the others in my unconscious mind, where they fester and ferment and come out, in whatever form, when they are ready.
I also hardly ever use my own direct experience in my fiction. I once quit my job and travelled around Europe for three months in preparation for getting serious about writing. Listen, I needed to. After four years at a job with no proper holiday my mind was gunked up and needed a bit of freeing. Upon my return, my aunt asked me what I had written while I was away, and what was I going to write based on my experiences, and I said "nothing". She couldn't understand and thought I had wasted my time somewhat. But I know that bits and pieces from that trip are still all buried in there, and they will, and probably have already, come out in some shape or other.
Imagine my delight when I found an essay by Norman Mailer in his book about writing, The Spooky Art, called 'The Unconscious'. Everything I have talked about above was not even something I had consciously thought about before, apart from having a vague sense of confusion at my inability to use real life conversations, characters and experiences. So it is fitting that an essay entitled 'The Unconscious' helped me to understand my own methods that I had buried deep inside me.
Here is what he says about creating convincing characters: "As we go through life, we do, after all, observe everyone, wittingly and unwittingly. Perhaps, out of the corner of your eye, you glimpse someone in a restaurant who represents a particular inspiration or menace or possibility, potentially friend or foe -- and the unconscious goes to work on that. It needs very little evidence to put together a comprehensive portrait because, presumably, it has already done most of the labour. To use an unhappy analogy, it's as if the unconscious is a powerful computer that does not often need much in the way of new data to fashion a portrait, considering how much material it has stored away."
And about using your own experiences, citing 9/11 as an example: "If you never write about 9/11 but were in the vicinity that day, you could conceivably, in time to come, describe a battle in a medieval war and provide a real sense of such an event. You could do a horror tale or an account of a plague... All kinds of scenes and situations can derive ultimately from 9/11. What won't work is to go at it directly."
This has helped me to understand that the child-like woman and the three months around Europe (for example) have all become a part of the mish-mash that is my unconscious brain, the animal that I get to work so hard for me on a regular basis. I might not write about that woman, or those train journeys, but they contribute to the composites that end up in my work. The Sound of Butterflies is ultimately about a long-distance relationship, of which I have had plenty. And as, Mailer points out, I need to take care of that animal: "Sometimes, I think you have to groom the unconscious after you've used it, swab it down, treat it like a prize horse who's a finer animal than you."