This fall I corresponded with novelist and short fiction writer Janice Eidus to investigate how fiction writers use personal experience in their writing. I have admired Eidus’ fiction and her teaching for many years now and in 1997, I invited her to contribute to my book, The Writer’s Journal: 40 Writers and Their Journals, published by a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell.
In that book, she shared a selection of her journal entries in the form of letters to a close friend, emphasizing that the letters were helping her write about life situations that she was not yet ready to work with in fiction. Her words about her journal as the place where she starts the process of writing from life experience left me curious about how as a fiction writer she ultimately uses her life experiences and about whether she is aware of paying attention to life experiences so she can use them in writing. When we started our recent correspondence, I asked three questions. Here they are with Janice’s answers:
1) How do you pay attention to your life and to the lives of others for the kind of personal experience that enters your fiction?
When I was a little girl, an older girl who lived in my building in the Bronx once told me something that amazed and intrigued me. We were riding the elevator together, and she suddenly asked, “Wanna know how I get my hair to look like this?” I nodded, startled that she was deigning to speak to me at all, since I was in grade school and she was in junior high. I stared at her high, brittle dome of black hair, adorned by a red satin bow above her thick bangs. “I set it with beer cans every night,” she declared, dark eyes shining, “and then in the morning, I tease it as high as I can!”
It’s no coincidence that the character Geraldine in my story “Vito Loves Geraldine” (the title story of my collection by the same name), proudly reveals to the reader that this is exactly how she styled her hair: “I just set my black hair on beer cans every night and in the morning I teased it and teased it with my comb until sometimes I imagined that if I kept going I could get it high enough to reach the stars ….” Geraldine is, of course, worlds removed from the girl who spoke to me back then in the elevator, because I knew nothing of the inner life of that girl, whereas Geraldine has an inner life that I know intimately. After all, I invented her and all of her feelings and desires: She’s madly and obsessively in love with Vito Venecio, a tough boy/rock n’ roller who abandons her for a blonde model as soon as he becomes famous.
Now, I had no way of knowing, as a Jewish girl growing up in the Bronx, that I would one day use that image in a story (I didn’t even know back then that I would ever write stories!). But there I was, years later, writing about a tough-cookie, teased-hair girl from the Bronx, modeled on the older Italian girls in my neighborhood who had seemed so exotic and fascinating to me, so far removed from my own Jewish, politically progressive household. And I found myself remembering that moment in the elevator — the girl’s fierce pride in her hairstyling regime, and her strong, startling urge to share it with me — and I was very, very grateful for the twin gifts of memory and imagination.
Many incidents and characters in my fiction are based on my “real life” or the “real lives” of friends and family. But those incidents and characters become transformed in my fiction (just as that moment in the elevator did). Sometimes they are radically transformed, and other times, subtly transformed. I feel free to let my imagination step in, allowing it to be as unbridled and unreigned as it possibly can be. In general, I believe that fiction that feels “true” does so because it reflects truth — the truth of passion, ideals, and ideas.
2) Do you still keep a notebook or journal?
I kept a very detailed daily diary from the time I was a little girl until I was in my early twenties, but I stopped keeping it at just about the same time I found the courage to “officially” declare myself a “writer” to friends and family,and began publishing my stories in magazines. From that point on, I no longer seemed to have the need, or the urge, to record my daily doings.
Instead, what I began to do, and what I continue to do to this day, is to make notes to myself on a memo pad that I always carry with me, no matter where I am. I never hesitate, no matter what the circumstance, to take out the pad and jot something down, perhaps something I’m observing, or something I’m feeling, or some snippet of dialogue I overhear. (If I were being presented to the Queen of England, and I needed to make a note — perhaps about the decor of the palace — I would simply excuse myself mid-curtsy and do what I had to do for the sake of my fiction!)
My notes are frequently imagistic: “A threatening inky sky”; “Puffy eyebrows”; “An electric arc of rage.” Occasionally, I’ll jot down a thought about a character: “Should Nora be a pediatrician, or a surgeon?” Or, “Should the family live in Brooklyn or the suburbs?”
At the end of the day, when I get home, I take out the notes I’ve made and I re-read them, in order to figure out how best to make use of them. That “threatening, inky sky,” I realize, is the perfect sky for the scene in Chapter 5 of the novel I’m working on, in which a ten-year-old child, feeling helpless and alone, ignored by her parents and her sister, stares out her bedroom window. That “electric arc of rage” suits the girl’s father, who has trouble controlling his temper.
Other times, I simply file the notes away in a folder I’ve labeled “Images/Descriptions/Ideas.” Currently, I have six such folders, all growing fatter and fatter. At times when I’m feeling blocked or stuck in my writing, I pull out one of these folders and skim through the notes I’ve made. Doing so never fails to help me to move forward, to become “unblocked” and “unstuck.”
Robin Hemley, in his wonderful book, TURNING LIFE INTO FICTION, calls these sorts of jottings “triggers” because they do, indeed, trigger one’s imagination in the fictional realm. I’m always surprised and delighted to re-discover the wide variety of things that have made an impression on me throughout the years. “I can use that!” I think, and I do.
3) Do the things that want to be autobiographical encourage or distract your stories?
In my story, “To Boston” (also in my collection, VITO LOVES GERALDINE), a young girl runs away from home: She drops out of school, and steps onto a bus in New York City’s Port Authority, ready to leave her old, somewhat wild and chaotic life behind and to start a new, quieter life in Boston, ” … a city she remembered — vaguely — as filled with staid, taciturn, respectable New Englanders, men in spectacles and tweed jackets, and women with short haircuts in belted tan coats.”
The truth is that, in my “real life,” as an unhappy adolescent, I used to sometimes fantasize about running away from home in exactly the same fashion — but I never did. Instead, years later, I took my very real fantasy and gave it to the young girl in the story who shares some traits with me, but not others. For better or worse, in terms of the rest of her imaginary life, I allowed her to do what I hadn’t done. Writing “To Boston” allowed me to explore my long-ago yearnings in a deeper way than I had allowed myself to explore them in real life (for which, as it has turned out, I’m eternally grateful, as I would have forever regretted not finishing school and hurting my parents by running away).
My fiction is, I believe, always enriched by that which is “real,” because that which is real enables me to ground my prose with authenticity and logic — and yet simultaneously it allows me to roam far away, as far away as I need to in order to convey my message and tell my story to my readers.
Janice’s answers are vivid, funny and tender, and of course, they spark more questions, so she and I will continue the correspondence, and I will post more for you at a later date. In the meantime, click on Janice’s name in the byline of this article to find biographical notes and a link to her web page, where you can find out more about her fiction. In addition, Margins Magazine has an online interview with Janice if you’d like to read more of what she has to say about her work.
I believe you will enjoy reading her fiction and thinking about those fat folders full of images and the kernels of life events she uses to endow the lives of her characters.