As seen on The Afterword, presented by the National Post.
May 3, 2010
Toronto-based writer Sarah Selecky guest edits the Afterword this week. Selecky, a long-time writing instructor, has had her stories published in Geist Magazine, The Journey Prize Anthology and Prairie Fire, among others. Her new anthology of stories, This Cake is For The Party, will be published by Thomas Allen on May 8th.
Digging through memory for flashes of gold
Once, I let my mother read one of my short stories. This was last year, before my book came out. In the story, the protagonist is a woman who doesn’t have very many friends. Inexplicably, a friendly black dog comes to her door. The dog sticks around for a while. In the world of the story, other things happen for several pages. In the end, the dog leaves.
When she finished the story, my mother was red-eyed.
“What’s wrong?” I asked her.
“It’s just so sad,” she cried.
“What part exactly?” I asked, remembering too late that my mother always cries at “dog stories.”
“When the dog leaves you,” she said. “Why does she have to leave you?”
The problem: I had written the story in first person. The character’s name is Lillian, but I had written the sentences using the pronoun “I.” It makes the story feel more intimate. Obviously, I am not Lillian. Everyone knows this. Right?
When you are writing creatively, you pay attention to images and scenes and voices as they appear in your mind. Then you write them down. Sometimes an image comes from memory, and sometimes an image comes from imagination. But as you’re thinking about it, it becomes real — whether it’s “true” or not, imagination can feel like memory, and vice versa. A writer’s job is to find the relationship that exists in the combination of those images, and to transfer this to the page in an artful way.
As a writing teacher, I often coach my fiction students to dig through the soil of their memories for flashes of gold. I also tell them to make stuff up, to push their characters into dark or inappropriate places, to make them do things they would never think of doing themselves.
Then I spend a lot of time reminding them to stop worrying about whether a reader will believe their story is autobiographical. Because if you worry about that, how will you ever write anything? It’s missing the point entirely.
Now, as my first book is released to the public, I wonder.
Sarah Selecky’s anthology, This Cake is for the Party, will be launched on May 6th at Czehoski, 678 Queen St. W. Selecky will be chatting with author Jeff Warren