Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Fact and Fiction - Worlds Collide

When I was in high school, I had to take an economics class. It was a basic requisite class only for half the year and I don’t remember very much about it, except that I hated it. It was boring. We watched a lot of videos, about what I don’t remember, and I think we talked about balancing a checkbook and budgeting – okay, it probably was useful information, but I wasn’t thinking that far ahead when I was sixteen.

So, because I was bored, and because I knew a good portion of the grade was on a single term paper, I flaked. I slept, read, wrote notes, and used the hall pass a lot. See, by sixteen I knew a little something about myself, no matter the subject I could always ace a written paper... I also learned more about a class by writing those papers than I ever did studying dates and figures for multiple choice questions – that’s why math was never a favorite subject for me. There were no papers to write, which made it boring. I could do the work, I just didn’t like it... we’ll call this my early lesson in – not everything you have to do in life is fun!!!

So, we were assigned the term paper. I spent a few hours in the library picking my subject, brought home two armloads of books and read voraciously – if you break it down into reading material, I’m there – I always was like that. That’s how I excel. Some kids learn best by doing or hearing a lecture – I learned best by being able to immerse myself in words. So this part of the class I remember. I remember handwriting out at least twenty pages of notes. I remember going through my mom’s vast bookshelves at home... and I remember writing the paper out longhand and then borrowing my mom’s computer to type it all up. I barely remember the subject matter – it’s been a long time – but I remember doing the work... I liked doing papers much the same way I like writing now...

So, the day came when our papers were handed back. I watched each girl receive hers, until I was the only student without a paper. The teacher tapped me on the shoulder and asked to see me after class.

After everyone cleared out, I was left alone with this teacher. It was the only class I ever took with her and today I don’t remember her name or even what she looked like. Maybe I blocked it out. She handed me back my paper. My perfectly stacked, impeccably typed work had practically been dog-eared. And there on the front was a big, fat, red-lettered ‘C’.

I think my mouth might have actually hung open, agape, the way you read in bad fiction. And I really don’t remember what this woman looked like but I remember the way I felt when she looked at me, like I was an insignificant, low class, idiot. That I remember.

“That should be an F” she said, staring straight at me in that queer way that people have when they’re trying to make you nervous, “I know you couldn’t have written that paper. You cheated or plagiarized it.”

She paused, still staring at me. Maybe she was giving me an opportunity to defend myself. I did nothing. The oddest thing was, I felt guilt. I did the work. I didn’t plagiarize it – it was mine and she was completely wrong... I should have been insulted that she jumped to the conclusion that I was too stupid to write the paper. I should have responded. I did nothing. I felt guilty for something I didn’t do.

“The only reason I gave you a passing grade was because I couldn’t find the source you took it from. If I ever do, you’ll fail the entire class. Goodbye.”

I turned and walked out of the classroom, late for my next class... I remember walking into the hall and there wasn’t a soul around, carrying my taunting “C” paper that might as well have said, “Failure... loser... dimwit... cheater”.... C is for Cheater...

In retrospect, I should have fought her on it. In retrospect the thing I remember most is a fury at myself, for letting her think it. For taking the grade when I clearly didn’t deserve it. Any of my core subject teachers who had read my essays would have told her that I wrote the paper. They’d all read my work. But I didn’t ask anyone to help me or take up for me. I did nothing. Which only served to make me feel weaker and worse.

So what does any of this have to do with fiction? My main character has the exact same thing happen... except he handles it different... better... more satisfying – at least, for me. And I realized that I’d taken this small little thing from my own life, but different... the teacher in the novel is not my own teacher – they’re a whole character. My MC is not me. That’s the thing with fiction, your characters get to say and do all the things we would like to get to go back and do over... they get to be everything we’d have liked to have been, but better... Fiction should be realistic, but not real. Real is often less than spectacular... and every once in a while, in my writing at least, I’d like to see the overlooked, underestimated kid beat the odds.

Recently, someone asked me what I’m writing, and I told them it’s called, From the Neighborhood. So they asked if it was about me, growing up... Everyone who grew up in my neighborhood uses that phrase, “from the neighborhood” has multiple meanings – “They’re from home” “They’re good people,” “They’re one of us”.

It’s not about me – it’s fiction. But it is about the neighborhood. I am hoping to capture the essence of it... My characters could’ve grown up down the street from me... but they’re not real people I know... and I find it harder to explain to non-writers, but it is what it is. They’re realistic, but not real people.

How about you guys? How much of your fact goes into your fiction? Do you use pieces of people you know to flesh out characters? Do you use odd events of your past for fodder in your fiction? And what are your limits as far as how much real life enters your fictional world?

18 comments:

Stephen Parrish said...

I love this post. I love posts that hold my attention. (Sorry for the understatement, but really, that says it all.) I hope you fully capitalize on this incident in your novel.

Merry Monteleone said...

Crap, Stephen, what're ya sayin? Most my posts don't hold your attention?!!! :-)

Thanks. I hope so, too. I think it's pretty powerful, but then I won't know for sure how necessary it is until the end and revisions... some of my favorite stuff has to be cut because it detracts from the story... I hate when that happens... this story though, has a purpose and plays heavy into the theme and motion, if not directly into the plot.

Mary Witzl said...

I love this post too!

My daughter had a similar experience: she wrote a short story and the teacher scrawled a note on her paper accusing her of plagiarism. Even when I called the teacher and told her that I'd actually watched my daughter going through the writing process, she remained skeptical (and the story wasn't THAT good -- it's just that the rest of the kids were pretty bad). The way my daughter proved herself was by taking a writing exam with the teacher watching.

Like you, I have scenes from my childhood in my own writing, and my protagonist always handles them better than I ever did. The bullies end up worse off; the kids who use words to torment get told off; the snarky adults end up with egg on their face. Writing is so deeply satisfying.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Mary!

See, that's the thing - in retrospect, I do see why the teacher thought I cheated. I didn't look or talk like someone who could write that paper. I didn't answer questions in class, or even pay attention. She had no way of knowing what my aptitude was, because I'd never shown her anything - it never occured to me anyone would think I was stupid or question my writing.

Really, it sucked when it happened, but I did learn a few useful lessons from it. If you flake off and don't show your best, you can't blame people for underestimating you... you told them what to think. I also learned to curb my accent a bit. My Chicago-eese is naturally on the very gutteral end of the spectrum and over the years I adopted an academic/professional voice that worked really well for school settings and work environments. People tend to think you're stupid when you say, "tree" for the number 3. While I don't particularly like that kind of judgment, I do understand that it's a matter of communication and it's something you need to master verbally as well as on paper, if you're going to be able to touch people in any meaningful way.

I'm glad your daughter got her grade fixed... ah, to do it over again, I wish I had told my mom or a teacher who would have sided with me, or at least have shown her all the notes and rough draft. Another lesson, I guess.

Stephanie said...

It's weird...little things creep into my fiction. Factoids from throughout my life. And I was thinking, the other day, about how much of the places I've been and seen goes into my novels. I realized each person approaches storytelling from their own perspective of the world. The house they grew up in becomes the house their characters live in. You think everyone else will relate, but they grew up in a completely different house.

Demon Hunter said...

I post a few pieces of fact into my fiction. Sometimes the oddest things go into my fiction, but they/ve actually happened, which is nuts considering I mostly write horror...lol. :-)

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Stephanie,

I think the process is different for everyone. A lot of writers will use many things from their lives - some even say that your first or second novels are more autobiography than fiction. For me, I've never used a real life setting before. And actively tried to make sure I'm not taking things from real events or built characters wholly from real people.

But I think it's whatever works for you - and if building the fictional world from real life makes it more compelling, then it works. Thanks for stopping in!

Hi Demon Hunter,

So, if we hang out sometime will I have to be on the lookout for ax murderers? :-)

Really, I don't think it matters what genre you're writing in - there's a human component that translates... so maybe you've never been chased by zombies but you can create it realistically because there was some other event that made your pulse quicken in some way.

silken said...

this is very interesting Merry. I guess maybe we all go through these kinds of things but most of us don't have the talent/wherewithal to be able to put it into a setting where we can gain some redemption/closure/satisfaction. very cool! is this work a young adult fiction? thanks for sharing your process w/ us readers as well. it makes for an interesting perception when approaching a story.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Silken,

This one is YA - really I'm approaching the writing as mainstream adult, but the main characters are all in the teenage bracket, so I'm pretty sure it'll get labled as YA.

It was rather fun to write. It's the first time I've purposely taken an incident from my life and used it for my characters, but it may be something I try again later... we'll see how well it resonates with regular readers.

hifidel said...

That's a good story, Merry, and should work very well in fiction too. (And your learning style is very much like mine!)

In some ways, very little of my own experience gets into my poetry. I used to allow it in more, and found that writing about my own experience made the resulting poetry too narrow. (Though one poem about my actual experiences won a contest and ended up making more money for me than any other poetry I've written, I actually think it won because of the message, not the poetry. It really was not written well at all.)

I probably started taking a different approach to writing when I focused on science fiction poetry instead of more mainstream work. It made it so that poetry wasn't about my own experiences so much, and yet could still be about things that are important to me. When I want to use my own stories, I've taken to putting them more into creative nonfiction pieces. (And I am beginning to like that sort of writing better the more I engage in it.) I think, though, that one's own experiences like that could work nicely in fiction, perhaps more so than poetry. But then, it could just be me, and including one's own experiences in poems might work well for other poets.

spyscribbler said...

I came back to see if you had a new post up, and was astonished to find I had not commented on this post! Man, that's heartbreaking.

Speaking up for myself is something I find difficult. I have no problem speaking up for other people, LOL, but for myself? Nope. I'm learning, though. Slowly.

Ello said...

Boy did this story resound with me! I've had run ins with teachers that are so know it all and refuse to believe that a student can actually do whatever it is that the teacher is doubting them about. Did that make sense? It's funny that the teachers I remember the most are those that were arrogant and nasty. The nice ones have faded away. I have one teacher incident that this story reminded me of. We had a holiday party and this one chemistry teacher asked everyone to bring in a holiday ornament. What this had to do with chemistry, I still have no idea, but everyone brought crafty elaborate ornaments that were artistic, or expensive, or glittery. I was poor with parents who were not craft oriented. Without any guidance and not being at all crafty, I drew a star, painted it, strung it up and brought it to school. I will never forget Mrs. Fong (yes I will never forget her name) holding it up in front of the class and mocking it viciously. She actually asked people to vote on whether or not that was the worst ornament of the day. Wow I will never forget that woman and her incredible abuse of her authority. She had clear favorites and everyone else could go to hell. I wish I had the guts to stand up to her even just once but I never did and now I just have regrets about it.

Kathleen said...

Oh but that sounds familiar. When I was in 11th grade, we had these provincial tests. There was one for math and one for English and 60% of your grade was based on that one test. I kept my grade just above a pass and then crammed for the test. When the results came back, the teacher actually stuttered when he told me that I did well.

As for my own personal experiences, a fair amount of them cropped into the book that's out on submission. It's about weight and if there's one thing I know well, it's being fat.

My current WiP has a lot less of my life in it, but I did find myself drawing on some of my high school experiences.

Richard Lewis said...

Same thing happened to me! When I was a senior at boarding school. I was dumbfounded -- you've said how I felt.

Good luck with Raskin's Wings, Merry.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Shelly,

I keep meaning to touch base with you via email - and I will send you one very soon. I'm glad the poetry is going so well for you! Poetry is such a tough market and I'm so excited that you're building up such great publishing credits and being recognized for you work... It fun to stop in at your website and see all the new places your work can be found. I get to say, "I knew her when..."

One of the things I learned from my kids is that everyone has their own way to learn. My daughter is a lot like me - her reading comprehension is very good, but she's lazy and if you tell her to read something, it's a sure way to get her to avoid it... she has to find it on her own, and then she can power through vast amounts of material in no time. She also knows she's on the bright side, so she will often skip reading the chapters altogether and just barely listen in class because she knows with little effort she can still get passing grades... so it's a chore to teach her to try her hardest sometimes.

My middle guy has great work ethic. He does well in math and computer but has to work harder at reading, because that doesn't come naturally to him... he's not a word guy, he learns better when it's explained and then he gets to work through it hands on. Once he's done it successfully, he has the lesson forever... he gets better grades on average than oldest, even though he has to work at it - because he will work at it.

Littlest is ahead of the curve. I don't know yet whether that will be a good or bad thing. So far he's about a grade above all of his classmates in almost everything. I worry about that, because there's only so much they can do to keep you interested when you know the material - but so far he loves school and he's very social... he's only in first grade, so how he learns best will likely show itself in time.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Spy,

I think a lot of us have trouble tooting our own horns or speaking up for ourselves. I'm better at that now, I think, but I'm betting there are a lot of people who had similiar experiences that let the opportunity go and felt bad about it later.

I had to do my resume recently, as I'm currently looking for a job. The funny thing is, I've done resumes professionally. I've helped or written a bunch of my friends' and family's resumes and done all sorts of business writing. I'm quite comfortable with it normally, but I had a real problem getting my own done. I kept holding back, I think it was because it was my own and I felt like it was over the top writing what I would normally write for someone else with the same qualifications.

Hi Ello,

I hate that teacher on your behalf!!! There are some like that, I swear they went into teaching just to be able to push people around. But then, for each of those there are the good ones. I had more than my share of good ones. I think I got lucky that way. I can think of three teachers offhand that would have stuck up for me if I had told them about this teacher... I just didn't speak up.

They say the best revenge is a life well lived. Imagine how annoyed Mrs. Fong would be if she saw you now, with a fantastic career, wonderful family, and a budding writing career unfolding. Take that, Mrs. Fong!

Hi Kathleen,

Ha... It's amazing how many slackers are really writers in disguise. I'm not judging, you just sound a lot like me.

I'm kind of new to adding directly from life into fiction, but right now I think it might be the most powerful writing I've done... maybe it's different for different writers, or maybe my own craft is growing and evolving (I hope... I hope it always improves, that's the goal, even moreso than publishing if that's possible)

Hi Richard,

Nice to meet you. I stopped to take a look at your blog - I'll be back around to take a good look at the book you've got due out - congratulations!!!

It's amazing how many people have had the same experience. It's funny, too, that teacher probably mistook your dumbfoundedness for guilt just like mine did. Ah well, gives us more fodder for fiction.

Mary Witzl said...

Merry, I told your story to my daughters and they were incensed on your behalf.

I'm just fresh from marking 24 compositions on Bend it Like Beckham. Three were obviously plagiarized (straight from Wikipedia, the idiots), but one, full of mistakes, was quite well-written and obviously sweated over, the work of one of my biggest goof-off students. I just wish I'd realized he was capable of that much -- I'd have worked him a lot harder. You are right that teachers only see what they are shown; it's so hard to see what students are capable of if they persist in hiding their ability.

(I had a nasty teacher too, Mrs Fobert, named and shamed. Phhht to you, Mrs Fobert, if you're reading this!)

Michelle H. said...

For me personally, I have put in a lot of fact in my current manuscript. I haven't tested the limits yet. *shrugs* So I don't know how far I will go when my mind finally says to stop.

Great post!