People as Inspiration.Have any of you been inspired to write a story by a person or people? Raise your hands. Okay, okay, I get the idea. Put them down now, all thousand or so of you.
It's almost a given that fiction is inspired by people because it is about people. Or at least it's about people as we imagine they might be. Yet I'm often surprised at how often we forget that our basic stories must arise from people, their inspirations, their conflicts, their relationships. Too often we get into thinking about characters, and we design them to fit the stories that are brimming inside of us, and too often they lose that little edge of humanity, the personal uniqueness that makes them alive on the page.
I'm thinking of this because I've read some contest entries as well as some books lately that have made me think I was back in my childhood playing with paper dolls-- or if I were a younger woman I might have thought I was playing Barbie and Ken with my friends. At the same time, others I'd read had characters that were people, not just mannequins that were being posed for my imagination. What was the difference? Well, I had the feeling the authors had been inspired by real people.
Last week I visited my older brother in his home, and had the pleasure of interacting with his chaotic and just a bit- unusual- extended family, which include his wife, her aged mother, their grandson who they adopted, and my younger brother. There's a lot of tension in the family, which always seems to function at the very brink of extinction, yet always holds together. There's a ribbon of faith that makes things work and pulls them through difficult times. No one who needs their help is turned away, even when times are tough and their own livelihood, based on the troubled real estate market in California, seems in jeopardy. At an age when he ought to be retired, my older brother works all days of the week, often late into the night, and somehow things seem to work out. He and my next younger brother are such polar opposites, it's amazing they can live in the same house. Neither of them can possibly live up to the other's standards because they approach life and living so differently. One must have everything in its place. The other doesn't have a place for anything. But even though they have completely different goals and means of achieving them, they both get their jobs done.
I usually fit squarely in the middle between the two, and have affinities with both, which makes it sometimes hard to deal with the tension between them. Add to the mix my sister-in-law, who deals daily with everyone's frustrations, trying to make things and people fit together, and is often in a lot of pain. And their adopted son, who is their grandson, who has recently been diagnosed with Asbergers' Syndrome and presents a constant puzzle to them.
Then there's my sister-in-law's mother, delightful Daisy, who often as not can't remember who these people around her are or why she's living with them.
I spent a lot of time with Daisy. She knows she can't remember much of anything beyond her childhood, and it is a great frustration to her. We had a marvelous time one day chasing down some of her memories on my laptop. We hunted up her childhood home in Alabama near the Gulf of Mexico, and I was shocked when she recognized names of towns and put her finger right on her house, and said, "That's it." She even pointed to the pecan grove and her father's carpentry shop near her family house, all of which still stand. And with her finger, she traced the highway down to the Gulf, remembering the inner tubes they often took with them to play in the surf. Yet only occasionally could she remember her mama was gone now, that her husband's name was Frank and he'd been in the military.
The next day she had forgotten our little tour into the past. But she knew we'd had a good time together. We had no memories in common, and it left me feeling very sad and impotent, and I had to think of why. Is it because memory is so valuable to me? It was immensely valuable to Daisy too, and she knows that, but she also knows she has lost it. Yet we had one thing of immense importance to both of us, the sense of companionship. And now, I'm sure she doesn't remember me at all. But Daisy knows one thing: She may not remember the details, but she's had a good life and doesn't regret a thing.
I think, because I've known Daisy, I would write an elderly woman differently now. I've tended to avoid putting elderly people in my books for some reason, and I've never wanted to write of one who had lost his or her past. Maybe I didn't quite grasp the concept of losing one's memory. Or maybe I found it too frightening. But Daisy has taught me how it works, and that there is a wonder in living a long life when one can only say, "I can't remember it but I know it was good." And there is a wonder in watching her caretaker daughter, who can say, "That's all right, Mama, we don't worry about that. We're here for you because we love you." Or my younger brother, who, though he's been there two years and Daisy still thinks he's the live-in gardener, can say, "Don't worry, Daisy, we're here to remember for you."
And I think it would be good to take the dynamics between the two brothers and re-write it in a story because that is something very real in human nature. It's a hard thing to see the world through the eyes of someone whose values and way of living are so completely different.
I don't get to see my relatives very often, and just talking on the phone and emailing doesn't give the clearest picture, so this trip has been valuable to me and not just in terms of being with family. They have taught me something valuable about my own craft: The essence of character is people, and their relationships with each other. People are at once all the same and all different, each alone yet part of the common whole. And stories are, most of all, about people.