People tell me things. I listen; I remember. I tend to free associate, relating the things one person tells with what others have told me, and with my own experience and frame of reference: mythology, literature, psychology, history and my world view. Then I write stories. You know—the creative process—whatever that is, as if there were “one size fits all.”
I am a writer. There I’ve said it! For a long time, most of my life, I would never have thought of calling myself a writer since I was not a published, well-known, or otherwise “qualified” to call myself one. Then one day not too long ago, I realized: Hey, I write, and I am not totally unqualified to do so. I am facile with my native language, articulate and motivated. I have things to say, lots of ideas about a lot of things. I do not have an agent, a publisher or an audience, except for you, but people tell me things—things that should be heard and remembered, even if only by a few.
What kinds of things do people tell me?
True things, made up things, funny things, sad things, intelligent things, crazy things, joyful things, tragic things. They tell me about their experiences, their thoughts, and their feelings. I listen and not because I am trying to glean material for my writing. In fact, I never think at the time that I will use the things people tell me. Why? Because I am truly interested in their lives, and I empathize, no matter how different from my own experience their stories may be.
I don’t take notes and I may never use most of the things people tell me in my writing. It just happens that when I am in the throes of my own creative process of writing, being moved along by what and from where I don’t know, the things people have told me start to appear in characters’ dialogue, thoughts and actions, or as part of the narrative.
I love when that happens!
I don’t feel I am violating a trust, although I suppose if the people who have told me things read and recognize something they had once told me, they might feel betrayed. I would hope not. I think of my writing more as a laying bare of the human condition, partly through what people have shared with me. The fabulist writer, Italo Cavino, said, “A classic is a book that has never finished what it has to say.” And so it is with our lives—which are filled with meaning and offer acknowledgement and maybe some understanding of our common human condition.
Dante wrote about the medieval tradition of thinking on four levels of interpreting the Bible and literature, and I would suggest this applies to experiences in life as well: the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the analogical. I have also thought of these levels as a way to understand the things people tell me, which are parts of the book of their lives—also never finished what it has to say.
That’s why I listen; I remember and I sometimes write about the things people tell me. If there is no one to listen and record these things they will not live on to inform, inspire, warn and engage readers—maybe only to “entertain." but hopefully to go deeper, to formulate questions and to see relationships to their own lives.
It also may be that I sometimes intuit more than what people tell me, through a gesture, a facial expression or a gaze. I may see a pattern, a theme in their lives, as I see in my own (and others may see in mine). These too can be understood on all four levels: the literal reality of it, the symbolic in it of a concept or principle, the moral implications of it and the possible analogical, which transcends it all to the philosophical/spiritual/universal: whether it relates to beauty, sadness, or a small, unnoticed heroic deed. I hear or see regrets, hope, anxiety and sometimes despair. I also see apathy, deluded thinking, magical thinking or no thinking at all—just feeling.
When I stood before friends who were beside their 24 year-old son’s casket, we just looked into each others’ eyes for a long time. I knew the story of pain, of lost hope, of lost faith: an ancient human story, with each of the four levels evident and all understood in that moment—with no words.
People tell me things. I listen, and I remember. I will continue to write what I hear, what I see, what I know in an effort to tell the ongoing, classic book of the human story that will never finish all that it has to say.