Having been immersed in AWA method writing workshops with Sue Reynolds and Pat Schneider for almost seven years and having recently completed the AWA certification training for leading writing workshops, its method of facilitation is deeply embedded. Its guidelines frame not only how I conduct and handle myself in workshops, but how I discuss the written material of my peers. The precept of treating all writing as fiction, which is in place to protect the writer from personal scrutiny, is the one which is particularly challenged in the world outside the safe boundaries of an Amherst Writers and Artists workshop.
In these workshops, prompts are offered to launch the writing, and each writer is free to take the writing wherever they feel drawn (to ignore the prompt is also an option), which may be a poem, a prose piece of either fiction or memoir or a narrative essay. But when the invitation to share a piece is given, once the piece has been read aloud, it is treated as fiction – even if it bounces off the page as a true-life account. This approach has many remarkable gifts. The writing tends to go much deeper, take bigger risks, and trusts quickly develops among the participants once they understand that the writing is considered a piece of writing and the author is left out of the equation.
But out in the real world, things are quite different. One of the first questions a writer (namely me!) is asked when they’d stated they’re writing a novel, is, “Is it based on your life?” or some variation on that theme. People want to know if they are reading a real-life intimate account, couched as it might be in some fictional world, of the author’s life. These questions always take me a bit aback – not because I’m shy or very secretive about my life, but on account of the embedded principals of confidentiality and fiction fiction fiction.
However, that said, the truth is, that there is no pure fiction and there is no pure memoir. All stories lie somewhere in the murky in-between. I’m writing a story about a woman who works for Simcoe County’s roads department – she scrapes roadkill off county roads, drives a snow plow, and fills potholes. Her younger sister and father died in a fire for which she feels responsible when she was eleven years old. She is thirty-seven and lives with a man ten years younger and they own a smooth-haired fox terrier. None of these things are remotely similar to my life. She finds out she has cervical cancer. She tries to heal it naturally. She finally agrees to a hysterectomy, but when she does, she discovers that she is pregnant. In one order or another, these turning points are based on my own experiences. I’ve never lived in Barrie, but I know it. My character comes from the Kootenay Mountains in British Columbia, where I have lived. The first cabin where I lived there did burn to the ground. No one died. Her father was a draft dodger. I knew so many. And so on. A little of this a little of that, and voila, a story emerges.
The novel began with what Sherry Coman would call a “Sacred Image.” After noticing that many Stop/Slow sign holders on the roads were women, I had an image of a woman being active, scraping a raccoon or a dog from the side of the road, having to be tough, and wondered what kind of woman would that be, how would she handle the job among men, and so on. And the story happened. In part because of what I knew, and in part because of things I wanted to know.
Researching the roads department hasn’t been easy. I’ve heard many authors say that people are usually very generous about discussing their work and expertise. I haven’t so far had that sort of luck with the men at the yard where I have my protagonist working. I’d like to get inside a snow plow and ride through a shift.
So, no, writing about roadkill and truck driving and such isn’t from my life, but becoming intimate with these things is part of creating a believable world. I just have to find a way to transition smoothly from the sanctity of first flush workshop writing into the world of interview-type questions about how the work came into being.