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?