Monday, July 25, 2011

Fiction Writing: Caught Between Reality & Make-Believe

There are hazards to being a writer of fiction. Sometimes one gets trapped between reality and make-believe, entirely unawares.

About a year ago, I spotted a St. Bernard rambling loose along River Road, right near my house. I grabbed a leash and dashed down to get him before he fell victim to one of the cars which race along the winding curves.

He and I headed up into the large subdivision nearby, stopped at a house to inquire, and I got the dog’s name and directions to his stomping grounds.

The long driveway led to a white home. I knocked, and a man and woman answered, opening a sliding door. We spoke only briefly, I returned the dog, and trudged on back to my place.

However, it had all left an impression. There was more there. I sat down and wrote a short story about it, and all the details started to change.

I became a young guy named Dave. He was coming home from work. The dog’s name was Bear. The people at the house were odd – their stuff in piles in the kitchen, both heavy smokers, everything dingy. They didn’t seem to care that Dave brought Bear home, and when he asked them for a treat for the dog, the man (Henry) handed Dave part of a sticky donut out of a half-empty pink box on the coffee table.

I had been working with the idea of “the inside story.” The story within the story, which in this case was that Dave had a younger brother who worked at the donut shop, a brother with Downs Syndrome. That is revealed in the final scene. Eventually, the story was titled “Donuts.”

On Friday, I was revising that story for a fiction contest. I was tweaking and twisting and turning. So I was getting pretty intimate with it. It was in my marrow, the way stories get when you’re close with them.

Then on Monday, I was at work at the Tribune, and my partner Sabrina called at about 5 p.m. and said, “Hey, Michelle. There’s a woman here with a lost St. Bernard. Do you remember where he lives?”

And I said, “Oh, his name is Bear!” Then I said, “Wait. No. That’s not his name. That’s the name I gave him. I made that name up. I can’t remember his real name anymore.”

Sabrina said, “It’s OK. We don’t need his name. Just his address.”

“Right. Well, his house is up past Tom and Dobie’s, I think. It’s a long, curvy driveway. I think. On the left.”


“The house is white, and all run-down, and peeling apart, and there are old cars everywhere. Like four or five or six of them. But maybe I made that up. I don’t remember.”


“And when you first walk towards the driveway, there’s one of those above-ground swimming pools, only it’s empty, and there’s trash all around it. I’m pretty sure.”

“Great. I think we got it.”

“He’s a really friendly dog.”

“Yes. That’s what the woman said, too. Love you. See you tonight.”

I hung up the phone, thinking hard. What did the people in the house look like? No idea. All I could remember were the people in my short story. What did I say when I brought back the dog? No idea. All I could remember was what Dave did, what Dave said.

My memory of finding the St. Bernard had been completely eclipsed by my fictionalized version of the incident. I had rewritten it. There was virtually nothing left of the original.

Whoa. I’m going to have to watch that one. I can just hear myself using that excuse at a family gathering – “Sorry, must have been a writer’s blackout.”