blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1


Tracking the Muse
Dan O’Brien
Ron Smith
Camille Zakharia


Exploiting My Own Material

Many of my stories begin with a germ of excitement or passion concerning a character or idea that won’t let go of me. As I begin to draft in a scrawly longhand, I sense a voice of authority for a particular story. At one time, I shunned the autobiographical, having been told by “traditional” sources that it was a lame way to write fiction, but after studying with others, particularly writer Pam Houston, I’ve learned to exploit it, to begin with a world rooted in the physical, whether in my memories or whether observed yesterday, and proceed from there. In my story “Basketball is Not a Drug,” I exploit my own material for the sake of a narrative that blends the rhetoric of pharmaceutical fact, my emotional turmoil, and the love of basketball, a sport I never played myself.

For some time I had made notes in my journal about all the prescription medications I was taking, the frustration over being tied to those substances, though they clearly alleviated my pain and resolved other health issues as well. I desired intuitively to find a way to portray the character’s anger, and yet, as I drafted, the narrator found himself snidely laughing at the whole mess, establishing himself as sort of a wit (Blackbird editors found him funny, anyway). At the same time, I wished for the reader to follow the narrator through the trail of medi-jargon found in that appalling but oddly compelling literature that accompanies the dispensing of pharmaceuticals—quite valuable, yet deadly dull and occasionally simplistic (remember that your doctor has prescribed this medication because the benefit to you is greater than the risk of side effects). Ultimately, I intuited that no reader would ever care about this narrator’s medical problems unless he also had a life that was in some way interesting. The basketball season, in a sense, is the one biggie for which this guy lives; it is why he takes all his medications, to harvest these four joyful months each winter. In the same way that he obsessively knows his drugs, he also knows his basketball (or so he thinks), the home team, and his all-time favorite game.

All three aspects are autobiographical. By exploiting my growing dependency (I prefer reliance) on prescribed pharmaceuticals, I develop one aspect. By exploiting my anger over this dependency, I develop a certain humorous tone; and by exploiting my own love of the basketball season, I establish the Novocaine strand of the story, the only reason why a reader might stay with a 13,000 word story. Of course, if you’ve been writing for a while, you realize not every story develops with such ease. As a result, I am turning more and more to what I observe around me for the basis of my fiction, but through my telling (in the same way one might compare three accounts of the same accident) I nurture the story with autobiographical detail (pulled from millions of memory bytes about my family, my schooling, my mishaps, loves, and sexual encounters), the kind of gorgeous dreck we all have tucked away in our memories.

To demonstrate, recently my partner and I embarked on a seven-day Caribbean cruise. Each night I made copious notes on people I had observed: the excursions we took to places like the Mayan ruins in Tulum, Mexico, the young couple on the balcony next to us who insisted on lying about in the nude, in spite of our aghast protestations. The story, in its early stages, has unfolded as the journal of a female romance novelist, seeking seven days of fun to escape the devastation of her son’s death in Iraq. Again, working intuitively, I weave together several strands, some of which are autobiographical, some of which are fanciful. I feel a great passion for this story as I head for the stage of deep revision, again, having exploited what I know and feel about life. As I proceed through my days as a writer, this process has begun to reinforce itself; the more I do it, the more I feel I know how to do it. Yet need I point out that it never becomes easier? I also realize it may not be the way I write in five years. I’ve learned to let the method come to me, and for now, this is one that seems to be working.  end of text

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