Every book on writing I’ve ever tried to read in a shop and every workshop I’ve attended have all had the same piece of advice – carry a notebook with you at all times. That’s fine for recording what’s going on around you, but it takes on a different dimension when you’re writing about your own experiences as they happen.
I can’t say that a writer’s dairies (or journals) are any more honest than those people who don’t write – mine certainly weren’t in days gone by. But I did note little details which, with the passage of time, now surprise me. In the course of writing Scars and Stripes I dug out my chapter outlines and a faded print of ‘American Adventures’, a set of monologues that never saw the light of day. Some of it makes interesting reading. I didn’t recall, for example, that while in hospital after a car accident, someone in the next cubicle was being given the Last Rites. Or that I’d faithfully recorded a phone conversation on paper with a Mr Wank, a man randomly assigned to me for a market research call.
The notes aren’t exhaustive and they’re inevitably biased. But I have another treasure from the past. I rediscovered – in the attic this very day – a cassette tape that a 21 year-old me sent home from New York. He rambles a little and his concentration after the blow to the head isn’t brilliant. And he’s a little full of himself when he speaks, as all twenty somethings ought to be. And he’s every bit as sinusy as I am now. But when I hear him speak, I can also hear his isolation and his dreams and I suddenly have a hot line to all the things he didn’t want to say.
Then suddenly I glimpse a truth both powerful and daunting. This novel I’m writing is about real people, whose lives briefly intersected mine. And while it’s fine to use my experiences as source material for the plot and characterisation, I owe it to all of us, the heroes and villains and every shade in between, to do it all justice. I need to make it a good book that doesn’t trivialise the emotional journey or lessen the impact of the loss of innocence – the same loss we all go through when we realise that life doesn’t bend to our exclusive desires and that sometimes we’re just dealing with circumstance.
I have to make good on that journey because I owe it to the people who aren’t around any more.
“To err is human, to forgive is divine. And to forget is folly.”