Writing is the ability to transform life experiences into art.
This is a bit of a paraphrase from a comment made by Lena Dunham’s father about her work. In an interview on Fresh Air I was listening to this morning, Lena Dunham talked about how she often takes experiences from her life and puts them on the screen, sometimes very soon after they’ve happened. There’s a lot to be unpacked on how you protect others with that content, and what would constitute “over-sharing” but it got me to to thinking about my own body of work.
I rarely take direct experiences from my life and put them verbatim or slightly altered onto the page. Certainly my technical and professional knowledge show up in scenes in Surreality, and a lot of the scenes with the dog Garfunkel are at least in part inspired by my first dog, Simon. Maybe a snippet of a conversation with my wife or with Brian or my Dad show up, but I treat these moments more as “easter eggs” than features that drive the narrative of the book.
An exception to this rule came at a particular moment in Dark Matter. It’s a passage I’m not really sure will make the final cut of the book, and upon reading it again, I’m not sure I’m even comfortable sharing it here, but I can give you the gist.
The majority of Dark Matter was written in a 117 day unbroken period. What broke the streak wasn’t finishing the book, it was being diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and the subsequent required surgery. Early on, long prior to this moment, I’d established that there was a chapel on the space cruise ship that’s the main setting for Dark Matter, and in day 107 or 108, sitting in Crimson Cup, I decided to have my character make use of it.
It’s not really that much text, just a four paragraph prayer. It’s at a moment before the finishing action of the book where it seems like the main character may fail in finding his family, and could lose his life trying:
“Lord,” he began quietly. “I know we haven’t talked a lot lately, and maybe we should have. I never wanted to be one of those Christians who only came to you when I was in trouble, but it seems like that’s what I am. Maybe I’ve needed you before this moment but all I know is I need somebody now.”
Even though I think of writing as a form of worship, this is probably one of the few (or only) times I’ve actually been writing what I was praying at that exact moment.
Whether or not that section makes the final cut (especially considering I plan to completely redraft this book) is uncertain. I don’t like to think of writing as cathartic, as something I do to process emotions. I write because I want to tell stories. But every now and then, writing is the tool I’m most comfortable with using to organize my thoughts. There’s an editor version of myself who’s much more dispassionate about those moments after the fact. But at the time, it was deeply necessary to write those few paragraphs.
Writing about your life and your experiences shouldn’t always be comfortable. It’s not something you should do lightly. But every now and again, it’s something you need to do.