Saturday, June 23, 2012

Bringing New Life to Past Experience

Writing fiction is largely about people and events that are born out of the imagination.  The writer shapes them to suit the storyline.  And yet, nothing created over a keyboard is entirely spun out of thin air.  There are too many ties to real people and events and smells of days gone by to not have them creep into the prose of a writer's latest work.  It is unavoidable.  We are what we've lived.  We can't divorce ourselves from the passions of experience, the pangs of heartbreak, the devastation of tragedy.  It  all seeps into sentences and paragraphs like rainwater into earth.

When I was in my teens, I worked for my uncle at his truckstop just outside of New Orleans.  This was in the early 1960s.  The civil rights movement was gathering steam, northern college students were in the South helping with black voter registration, and there was a lot of tension in the air, particularly in neighboring Mississippi.  I had been living in California, where social tolerance and local laws were more accepting of racial equality.  Although I'd lived previously in Memphis as a kid, returning South wasn't something I would have chosen to do.  My parents wanted to live in New Orleans, so I was conscripted to help them move.  Once there, I decided to stay for a year and earn some money working for my uncle before returning to school in California.

My truckstop job was pretty basic.  I pumped gas, changed oil and tires, cleaned restrooms, and occasionally got to move big rigs from the pump islands to gravel parking areas while their drivers ate burgers, drank beer and played pool.  My fellow workmates were both black and white, some redneck, some cajun, a few with prison records.  They came in all shapes, sizes and colors.  My uncle was ahead of his time - an equal opportunity employer.  We all worked together, sweated together, swatted mosquitos, fought flying beetles and lovebugs, and listened to Bobby Vinton and Brenda Lee over outside speakers.  In our world, on the job, there was no color divide.

Now, my uncle was no wise Atticus Finch type bent on fairness and social justice.  But he was pretty astute when it came to judging a person's worth, and he wouldn't tolerate mistreatment of any man because of his background or color.  He handled conflict calmly, and often with humor, which I came to admire.  Because unless you're dealing with a complete sociopath, a good laugh can relieve just about any potentially explosive situation.  A lesson I never forgot.

One of the memorable characters I worked with at the truckstop was a big black man named James Clayton.  This was a guy at least six foot-six, who chewed on an unlit cigar and waxed poetic about life's ups and downs.  He had a rich, baritone voice, an engaging laugh, and a habit of shaking his head at the stupidity he saw around him.  "That white boy ain't got the sense of a possum - and they gits' run over all the time!" he would say.  And we would all roar in agreement.  James had a down-to-earth wisdom, and a kind of nobility I never forgot.  He took people as they were, and was respected by everyone.

Drawing on experience enriches writing in a way that pure imagination can't.  It's a powerful influence that enlivens characters, provides texture, and garnishes the drama of setting and atmosphere.  During the time I worked for my uncle, well before I began to write in earnest, I knew that some day I wanted to capture the feel and essence of that truckstop.  I wasn't sure how, but the kinship I felt with the place and those people never left me.  I wanted to write a book about the South, about racial prejudice, friendship, and honor.  I promised myself it would be dramatic and at the same time authentic.  The characters would not ring false.  The situations would be credible.

Many years later, I did write that book.  It's not about a truckstop, but it is about the South.  My hope is it's turned out as promised.       



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