Beginning writers frequently wonder what they might write about and usually write about subjects with which they have very little experience. Mostly, I think, this attitude seems to be coming from a lack of understanding about their own experiences. Often, if you ask a student about his or her life, the response is frequently: "My Life is boring." Anyone who writes, of course, knows this is far from the truth. It seems to me that everyone's life is rich with experience, where you grew up, how you lived, what your parents and siblings or guardians were like, who you hung out with. Whenever a student tells me that, my response is this: "I don't believe you." They look at me funny as if I've accused them of lying. "Tell me about one of your aunts or uncles," I'll ask. More often than not, I hear stories about quirky Aunt Mary or strange Uncle Louie, who was always coming to dinner, but never brought anything to the house. And Aunt Mary's lipstick was always bright red or that she wore expensive outfits to a backyard barbecue. Sometimes I will ask them to tell me something interesting about where they lived. "Nothing ever happened there," they say.
"Nothing?" I say, and then I ask, "Did you or one of your friends ever do anything that was unusual or dangerous now that you look back on it?"
"Well, there was this one time when we were in high school and we'd all gone out into the woods and started a fire. Someone had some shotgun shells he threw into the fire and everyone ran."
"That's not boring!" I say, "That's crazy."
"Yeah, it kinda was..."
"Write about it! Put it in a story," I tell them, "Fictionalize it!"
If you're going to be a writer you must be curious about the world you live in, where you came from, who your people were, and you must want to explore that history. This is the mine shaft were the gems are found. But you have to dig them out.
All of my stories are generated by moments from my personal history. Recently, I've been working on a story that takes place in 1931. It's a gangster story. What do I know about the 1930s? Not much. Surely not from personal history. But while doing my research I came across a photograph of the Eastown Theater near the Van Dyke and Harper area on the east side of Detroit. There were two moments in my personal history related to that theater. I lived four blocks from there and on weekends my friends and I went there. We were seven or eight years old, but it was close enough and we traveled in a pack, so my parents let me go. A few months before my mother had taken me there to see Charlton Heston in the Ten Commandments, a movie that traumatized me. It came out in 1956 so I had to be seven years old. I was freaked by the parting Red Sea, the rivers and cisterns that had turned to blood, the Pharaohs staff that was turned into a snake. Jesus, that was scary. Years later, and when I had returned from Vietnam, the Eastown theater had become a concert hall. It was the early '70s, and I went there to be part of the rock scene, to be part of the freak show that was sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
My point is this: Here were two moments in my history that revolved around a popular theater that figured predominately in the world of 1930s Detroit, and I had been there, the city was alive then as it is now, and I had been part of it on two separate occasions separated by 20 years; in fact, the Eastown opened its doors in 1930. So somehow my personal experience has wormed its way into my desire to write a gangster story because I had lived in that city, that neighborhood, and that city had spawned gangsters that even my grandfather had claimed to know, the same grandfather who sold numbers when he worked at the Ford Plant. This is my history. This is my fiction.