New clarity on fiction writing, after a painful loss

In a little over an hour, I will be sitting in a cozy spot at The Sanctuary, possibly with Elizabeth who is an awesomely happy dog, tucked in beside me, talking with 5 or 6 other writers. Once a month we share and discuss, rather than sitting quietly as we write. Today, if I'm not mistaken, one of my friends will have a manuscript ready for us to start reading for the first time. I'm elated for him. If he has it ready or if he doesn't, I'm still elated... I mean, imagine being that far along in the novel-writing process!

My own writing has taken a hit lately. With the holidays, then travel to my cousin's funeral, the last thing on my mind has been character development. (Although I did have a magnificent laugh when, during a rare moment of lightness, my uncle said, "You can use me and say anything about me you want to in your novel, baby... as long as I get to be a pimp." Wrong novel, but we sure needed the laughter, so I have to take my hat off to him here.)

On New Year's Day, I rode with my cousin's parents and 15 year old son to the scene of his accident, and to the police station to pick up some of his things. It's a drive nobody should ever have to take. We talked as we rode. I kept remembering a different week when I listened to relatives having similar conversations regarding the untimely death of my uncle. Same family, same heartbreak, 31 years apart. For years afterward, I kept thinking "I need to write this stuff down. I want to capture his story. The family's story." As if it could ever be a single story. My grandmother did not support this idea. She always said, "It's not a pretty story, baby." But the adult I have become now respectfully disagrees with this perspective. That something shouldn't be written if the details might be less than ideal. I understand what she meant, of course. But I believe writing authentic stories is important. Valuable. Necessary. No matter whether the details please others, or not.

I never want to inappropriately intermingle fiction writing with true stories about my family members, departed or remaining. Capturing what we see and hear may just be for us alone, in sorting out the raging sensations we can't otherwise make sense of. These factual details shouldn't make it into the pages of a novel. There are private things that should never be exploited for personal gain, and I honor that.

Another realization, however, was never more clear to me as I reflected back over the drive down those  long, windey roads in the heart of Mississippi on the first day of this year: the color and texture of our fiction comes from the truths we live. Our dialogue is more authentic. Our scenes more vivid. Our characters more complex. Paying attention to what's real, even when it hurts to see what you're having to acknowledge - it will enrich our writing, if we let it. It has to. I believe that in allowing it to do so, we can honor those we miss, just a little bit more.