Check your notes

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.”

Post Script
I’d like to add that, awkward as it was to hear my past on tape, I’m really glad I stuck with it right to the end. And that I kept the tape all this time. What he doesn’t say is as powerful as what he chooses to share. And it all helps me understand where the protagonist’s character needs to veer away from what actually happened, even if it still draws upon those events, people and emotions. And hopefully I understand myself a little more too, which is one of the happy byproducts of being a writer!


  1. YES. This sounds so good. 🙂
    And Mr Wank sounds…well, like he should be in a book.
    Oh, and YAY for your NaNo achievements!!!

  2. Derek says:

    Hi Susie and thanks for your comments. I'm pacing myself with the cassette – no more than 10 minutes a day. The real challenge will come at the end of November when I look at my first draft speed typing and begin to craft a novel from it!

  3. motheroad says:

    This is just so interesting. I suppose I don't have a specific comment (I find my critical thinking skills a bit pear-shaped these days) but I do understand that weird time-warpy thing that happens when you look at things you've written in the past in order to square how you remember yourself with how you really were. For example, I remember myself – in my youth – as being really rather obnoxious and embarrassing, but when I go back and read journal entries, I find that I was even more obnoxious and embarrassing than I recall.

    Useful, no?

  4. Derek says:

    Yes, very useful thanks. And food for thought in the light of remembering that I subsequently burned my diaries of the time, as a service to literature.

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