“There are no experiences too dreadful to cannibalise.” – Stephen King
It’s a curious word, cannibalise. I suspect for most people, it conjures up images of spiders consuming their mates, or serial killers, or sticky-pawed “tribesmen” dining on the longpig in fuzzy, fourth-generation copies of Video Nasties. But that’s not where we’re going here.
Where we’re going is the other, perhaps more colloquial use of the word, as in to utilise the spare parts of one machine to make another machine work. To take something old and make something new.
Where to find the parts, though?
“Memory is the greatest gallery in the world, and I can play an endless archive of images.” – JG Ballard
Obviously, imagination doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s anchored, if even by the thinnest of threads, to our physical and emotional lives. I’d venture that every writer, no matter how fantastical the tale, could show you the scene, or the line, or even the lone word that quite deliberately evokes or reflects some real life incident or reaction. Imagination and history hand in hand.
The history that makes us smile, the walk in the park with a loved one, the childhood joy of fresh snow, they’re imprinted on our brains in High Definition, every recalled sense engaged and accessible. Honed and controlled, those memories are a pleasure to translate to the page.
Other things … maybe not so much.
The choices we made, the obstacles we faced, the conflict we won against or lost to, these are all often difficult to revisit, at least with the relaxed openness with which we can transcribe the good times. But plots are made of choices, and obstacles, and conflict to whatever degree the story demands, and so my own view is that a writer should use whatever internal resource he or she can to lend those elements weight.
I’m talking about finding a method of raising the stakes, of (hopefully) making the characters feel as real as possible. It’s a technique that every writer employs, of course, but what I’m advocating here is the courage and self-belief to consider going further with it than you otherwise might. I’m talking about a DIY Autopsy.
Imagine yourself in a cool, tiled room. It’s well-lit, but it feels like there are shadows everywhere. In front of you, on a wheeled steel trolley, a crisp white sheet is draped like folds and dunes of snow over a shape you recognise.
Yes, you know that shape. You know its contours and contusions, its secrets and its scars. This is your real timeline, with it’s Favorited moments and RT’d remembrances of the good times and the bad. This is the cadaver of long-ago, and though it’s dead and gone, destined to be buried by the present and have it’s unmarked grave trampled upon by the future, there’s always time to scavenge it for parts, to recycle it into something vital and alive, to resurrect it as a body of work.
Draw back the sheet, though, and you might find yourself surprised. The past looks … different, somehow. The good times, they look the same, little slices of HD contentment, but the bad times, the break-ups and the deaths and the quarrels, they’re blunted now, their edges smoothed by the mercy of distance. “She was never right for you, anyway.” or “At least he’s not suffering now” or, damningly, “We argued, but I won.” are phrases stitched into the wounds like tattoos, while other needles have pumped numbness into the surrounding flesh. Those cracks in your heart? They’ve been papered over.
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” – LP Hartley
In its Proverbial sense, a quote perhaps most often interpreted as being about regret. Here, in this room, with the past on a trolley in front of you, I would retool the meaning to be about mis-remembering, about singing yourself to sleep with mondegreen lyrics. Time heals all wounds, but perhaps, for writers, sometimes it heals them too well, closing a breach that looks on to a world of possibility for the people on your pages.
If the disagreeable has been terraformed, made more palatable, it may seem like unfamiliar territory, but you have a map should you dare to use it, and there’s endless veins of writerly gold at your fingertips, just waiting to be mined. Your memory may resist, may tell you that you don’t want to go there again, may even try to make you afraid.
Win this one. Bring a little swagger to the page with you, a little gunslinger flair. When the lungs are starved of oxygen, the body claws every last molecule of breath from every cell it can, even those in the fingernails. That’s the resourcefulness we’re striving for, that will to succeed even if means a cyanosed manicure.
Take a look at the wounds that haven’t quite healed, the sunsets of bruises that have yet to fade. Hell, take a scalpel to the old scars if you have to, but the point is to dig deep, to remember the missed chances and the lost loves and the comforting hands that have crumbled now to dust.
Touch the bruises, press on them until they start to twinge again. Push your fingers into the wounds. What you find there may feel cold, and alien, but give it time and you’ll feel it bubbling against the heat of your skin.
The memory is often merciful, half-closing the mind’s eye so as to obscure some of the finer emotional details of an unpleasant experience. It means well; to recall plainly the pain of a bruised jaw or a bruised ego, to remember at every moment and with absolute clarity the agony of a broken limb or a broken heart, would be to mark out the seconds of your life with torture. The mind’s eye closes, or turns away when it can, so as to allow us to relive our hurt in a more remote, survivable fashion.
But what I’m suggesting here, is that we pry open that eye, force apart the lids with surgical skill and courage, and remember an old piece of Gypsy lore, that the human eye retains the last image seen before death. Peel away the retina and hold it up to the light. See what you saw, feel what you felt, and paint it in pixels or ink.
When I was thinking about this piece I recalled a fine post by @DrewChial called “Keeping My Memoir Out Of My Fiction”, in which he elegantly discusses the perils of installing yourself to too great a degree in your work. It’s a post well worth reading, and I think that the perils he mentions can be comfortably applied here as well.
Yes, writing from the very personal level I’m talking about can be cathartic, but it doesn’t have to be an emotional anti-coagulant. You don’t have to bleed all over the page. It doesn’t have to be everything, and most likely shouldn’t be. Everybody has their own personal Privacy Settings. The important thing is to be able to access the resource when you need to.
One line of truth and a scene can come alive with not a Tesla coil in sight, a birth as opposed to a re-animation. One line plucked from your own personal hell can give your characters a wondrously flawed humanity, make their breath flutter from between the pages, and make the readers heart beat in time with theirs.