People are always asking writers, myself included, about how much of
their work is based on their own life experience. My answer is: a lot
of it vaguely, but not a lot specifically. Because, frankly, I have a
terrible memory. Whole years of my life seem to be gone. Events and
parties that friends in high school and college swear I was at...poof!
The bulk of my college education (don't tell my dad)...irretrievable
at best. Fortunately I was a good record-keeper, even as a teen, so I
have a lot of letters and mementos hanging around. I kept a diary of
some kind from 4th grade on, and at some point in high school I
started scribbling things I wanted to remember—bands, song lyrics,
events, quotes—onto single pages of loose-leaf, cramming tiny print
and little doodles onto the page until both sides were full. Like so:
Something I do remember: carrying these things with me everywhere,
never knowing when something I'd want to write down would happen or
spring to mind. (Which, in many ways, was good preparation for
becoming a professional writer. Trust yourself to remember a good plot
point or turn of phrase and you'll surely be banging your head against
a wall before long. This is sort of funny advice to writers when you
think about it but still: WRITE STUFF DOWN!)
I still like a lot of the sentiments recorded in quotes. Like, "Live
life like a diamond ring," a lyric from one of my favorite bands in
1985, Frankie Goes to Hollywood. And I vaguely remember some of the
events documented, like "The Metal Detector Fight." But there are a
ton of silly things on the pages (there are six, spanning 1984 to
1987) that don't resonate at all. "Jeff's party. Glen Friedman
dancing." Jeff Sanchez, probably. But who the heck was Glen Friedman?
"Tall and yellow." Okay, if you say so. "Water News"? News to me.
"It's all algebra" must have seemed funny, or SOMETHING, at the time.
Likewise, "Racing from the gift shop to the car and the simultaneous
door slam." Wha?
But that's okay. Because it turns out you don't need specific memories
to incorporate into novels; it's better to draw on things that are a
little bit beyond reach, a little bit fuzzy around the edges—so that
you have to bring them into focus on the page. Which works out great
for me. In the case of Dreamland Social Club, my newest novel, it was
the idea behind the doodle pages themselves—the notion of this kind of
frenetic documenting of one's own teen years—that eventually worked
its way into the story.
I guess you never know, though. If I try really hard, maybe I'll be
able to conjure the face of Glen Friedman AND his dancing, or that
race to the car, and maybe they'll turn up in a novel somewhere down
the line and I'll call it "Water News." Never say never, they say. In
fact, I'm pretty sure I wrote that quote down in 1984. :)