I’m a writer. I’m a writer 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. While I only get to type the words a few treasured days of the week, my brain never shuts off. Everything around me is an idea waiting to happen. I’ve just recently watched a documentary on the late incomparable Nora Ephron where she speaks of her mother saying (and so the documentary is aptly titled), “Everything is a copy.”
Her parents were screenwriters, and very often she’d find parallels between what was happening at home and what was happening to the fictional characters on screen. Despite hating seeing conversations she’s had and teachable moments she’s experienced on the big screen, she couldn’t help but continue to use herself as material when she became a writer. The truth is, life itself gives you such great material. She laid her friendship with Rob Reiner out to fill the incredible dialog between a guy named Harry and his friend Sally. She opened the door to let everyone in to see the insanity that was her family in This is my Life and Mixed Nuts. She oversaw the overbearing version of herself in the movie Hanging Up, which depicted her life entirely through the eyes of her younger sister. Toward the end of her life, she wrote a final love letter to New York City, to the food she loved, and to the husband she adored among the pages of Julie and Julia. In the very end, she produced a Broadway play whose main character was nothing more than a mediocre journalist with a wild streak of luck. Ultimately, this is how she saw herself; a mediocre journalist with a wild streak of luck.
Everything is a copy. At least most of the time.
I’ve written three books so far, and with all three there are strands and strings you can pull and find my truth. It’s funny to me who finds what. I’ve had three people find a shameless plug for a yet to be published book I’m working on in The Dreamer, and they were quick to ask “isn’t this your next book idea?” Yes, yes it is. My life has been enriched with some of the most wonderful girlfriends who are all wildly different from each other. They’ve all found the best of themselves through the personalities of many of my female side characters. There are particular people out there in the world, who know they are responsible for how I view love, and how I view heartbreak. I find when I write the strongest of my dialog that I am talking to one person. It may not be the same person every time, but it is, most certainly one person. I’ve dug this particular emotion from a place where I was with you. Just recently, a friend looked over my latest work of art (yet to be published), and in first nine chapters, he underlined one sentence. His note read: It’s like you’re sitting here, talking to me. 28,000 words, and he found the nine that belonged to him. My sweet hubs never finds himself as the leading man (honestly, he’s mine and I’m not sharing) but if he looks deep enough, he’ll find himself in every man. He will forever be the good in all of my stories because he is the good in me.
This is what’s been on my mind this month. How much of a writer’s truth do you see in their work?
I don’t know if you know anything about writers, if you don’t then please know, the space between draft one and draft two is called Hell. In the first draft, a writer only cares about two sentences: the first one, and the last one. Everything in between is just a mad dash. Imagine a sprinter, poised at the starting line who takes off like a rocket when the bell sounds. He doesn’t look back, he doesn’t stop. He just runs. When he crosses that finish line his heart is pounding with exhilaration! He did it, he got the The End. But then he turns around, and he sees. He sees all the hurdles that he knocked over. He sees where his feet left marks in the grass because he didn’t stay within the defined lines. He sees the cast of characters he trampled over, leaving them half described and confusingly defined. Sometimes he even finds a few characters and ideas hanging out by the starting line because he simply forgot they existed. It’s a hot mess. Looking at it all and wondering how on earth you can fix it is pure hell.
Even though I stand at the end of my book, breathless from the race and overwhelmed with the mess I’ve left in my wake, I’m exhilarated in a whole different way. The walk back is what it’s all about. The walk back is where I find my truths. I start at the beginning and I am able to shade in the finer details. The skeleton that was merely a non-descript anywhere USA on page one has now become the very best of what I love about the towns and cities that I have seen with my own eyes by the last page. I’m able to bring that love back with me to first page and give it a bit more color.
The characters who were nothing more than emotionless actors reading lines from their scripts are now giving me something real to work with. They have thoughts, and feelings, and they take these original words of mine and make them their own. Sometimes they agree and say what I ask them to say, and sometimes they turn to me and say, “Um…I’m not saying this.” Often, way more often than you’d think, draft one dialog becomes the idea of what I want them to say and draft two is all their words. To me, they are now people. They talk, I write.
I am amazed when I see my own personality spread out among these people. There is always a character who cusses like a sailor, because there is a side of me who values the utility of the word fuck. There is always a voice of reason, this is the part of me who was built from my own friends and family telling me that I’m a good listener and that I’m able to help them take a step back and really see what’s going on. There’s always somebody that wants something completely different than what they have. I’d like to say I’m unique in this desire, but I think we all have a wanderlust for something completely different than what we have. There’s always a snarky extrovert because that snarky extrovert is buried so deep within this quirky introvert. Things I would never be brave enough to say out loud, I write on the page. Spotlights I would run from in real life, I bask in within a book.
And then there are the emotions. The love, the excitement, the adventure, the pride, the hope, and the heartache. They were all mine first. Nothing I have ever written has been an exact moment of an exact time in my life. Okay, well, almost nothing. What happens is my characters bring my readers to a specific place. That place I was, that one time with you. Did you recognize it? I swear, I think there are people out there that feel a little ping in their hearts, and they ask themselves is this me? Probably.
I thought maybe I was unique in my writing, and I should be more aware of what I lay on the page. But then I connected with this idea that Everything is a Copy. I recently read On Writing by Stephen King. I’ll admit, this was the first Stephen King book I’ve ever read as horror isn’t a genre I enjoy. Even though it came highly recommended, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. He’s funny, and a bit of a smart ass. He’s got the sort of personality that light up all the happy little lights in my brain. His advice on the act of writing is solid, but it was how he handles his own writing that fascinates me.
All of his characters are him in a way. All of his side characters are either people he knows or demons that he deals with. Sometimes, like me, one person represents an emotion for him. I love the idea that in Misery, Annie Wilkes represents the hold that substance abuse had on him during that time of his life. Out of curiosity, I’m reading one of his non-scary books right now, my first true Stephen King novel. I giggle at the parallels I see to the things he shared in On Writing about his own life. There is so much of him in this book, and I don’t even know him at all.
And it makes me wonder, what truths have I read? What truths have I read in all the books over the years? What parallels would I be able to draw if I knew the writer personally?
I realize now there is an answer to this. Every book, every character, there is a truth to be found. We lay our personalities on the page and dole them out like playing cards to the people we create. We take every raw emotion we have ever had and weave it into the heart of the story being told. Strands and strings of truth, whispers of me left for you to find.
Everything is a copy.