By Shaena Lambert, who will be presenting Going Under the Words: Creating Fiction and Memoir at Hollyhock on June 2-7, 2017. This essay originally appeared in Quill and Quire, December, 2013, The Last Word, and was reprinted in The Huffington Post.
Margaret Atwood says in Negotiating with the Dead that writers are like jackdaws (a European crow): “We steal the shiny bits and build them into the structures of our own disorderly nests.”
Collecting these shiny bits is an integral part of the fiction writer’s craft, but most writers, including me, are somewhat shamefaced and ambivalent about the process. What if these bits are woven out of other people’s secrets? Or pieces of skeleton from the family closet? There’s an almost physical urge to use the material that speaks to you, especially once it starts to grow on its own, putting out twitching root hairs, but you don’t want to expose or hurt other people.
Nadine Gordimer’s famous solution was ‘to write as though everyone you know is dead.’ But few writers have the chutzpah to do this, or the moral certainty. For most writers, collecting material has a more secretive, illicit quality. It is gathered in the dark, kept under wraps, then released, with a mixture of pride and guilt, in what one hopes is a sufficiently transmogrified form.