It’s January 2001 and I’m backstage at the Big Day Out music festival, Sydney, Australia. We’ve been backstage most of the day, hanging out, avoiding the heat and crowds and filthy bathrooms, having a couple of beers and pretending like this is all cool, that we do this sort of thing all the time.
By we I mean myself and the man who will be my husband – at this point we’re still cheerfully living in sin, the engagement a few years away, but we know we’re going to stay together. So now we’re walking along a tarmac road at the back of the huge main stages, warehouse type buildings all around, and we’re following the band System of A Down who are about to go onstage.
‘Hey, it’s System of a Down’ says a teenage boy in awed tones as we wander past, his eyes resting briefly on us as we tag along behind, no doubt wondering how the hell we got to walk with his idols. Up ahead Darren, the guitarist, has his arm around Casey Chaos, the lead singer of Amen– they are obviously bonding, swapping stories. Just in front of us is my brother, tall in black jeans and leather, dyed black hair shining in the hot Australian sun. He’s the guitarist for Amen and they’ve already played their gig on the main stage, one of the first acts to go on. But it’s still the main stage and the crowd of appreciative kids kicked off, screaming and slamming and singing along, enjoying the spectacle. He came out to see us, afterwards, and we had to wait while several awestruck fans asked for autographs and took photos while he smiled, always happy to see them, the ones who love music like he does. And I just watch and smile, pleased for him that he’s doing what he loves.
So that’s how we find ourselves walking along hot tarmac and then up metal stairs to the back of the stage. System go through first, then my brother and Casey, easily through, obviously part of the scene. But the security guy shakes his head at the two of us, despite the sparkly laminated passes we’re waving around and, for the first and last time ever, I am a bit of a diva. I call for my brother and he comes back. ‘They’re with me,’ he says, all smiles, and the security guy has to let us through, though he’s not happy (after the set we hear they ban all non-musicians from being onstage). We find a spot standing stage right behind a muscular giant who, despite looking like the fiercest of Maori warriors, is a totally nice guy, smile wide as he kisses me on the cheek in greeting. His girlfriend is petite and blonde and gorgeous and equally friendly. Then System take the stage and the crowd of 50,000 plus goes completely wild. ‘Chop Suey’ has just gone massive and the guys are one of the most popular acts on the tour. And I have never felt anything like this.
Serge is laughing as he moves towards the back of the stage, microphone in hand his face incredulous and joyful and hilarious all at the same time – he obviously can’t believe this. And neither can I. Beside me I hear my brother choke out a laugh on a breath as though someone has hit him in the chest. And that’s what it feels like, like a slam to the heart, the power and energy of the crowd pulsing back to the stage. It is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever experienced. And these guys get to do it every night.
As writers we are often told ‘Write what you know.’ It’s a useful tool when creating reality for the reader – putting in details that are true to life and familiar or describing something you know so well so it becomes familiar, drawing the picture in the reader’s head. So now I know what it’s like to see a crowd from the singer’s vantage, how it feels to be on the stage and feel the pulse from the crowd, power surging up and through you, easy to extend my viewpoint to that of the artist.
All of us who write bring something of who we are to our work, which is why it can feel so confronting the first time you share it with others, like opening a little window into your soul. I’ve had some pretty interesting life experiences, been fortunate enough to meet wonderful and annoying and interesting people, each year bringing with it new events from which to draw references. In my NaNo novel I describe one of the worst dates I’ve ever been on, substituting the lead character for me, her emotions a reflection of how I felt on the night. All of my work so far has little pieces of me in it – my Ambeth heroine lives in the house I used to live in, for example. And for those things I haven’t done there is research, the Internet bringing places and cultures and ideas from around the world into one place, information on just about anything I can think of just a mouse click away.
But when you write fantasy, as I do, you have to extend even further, into the realm of dreams. I don’t know what it’s like to be dead or keep dragons or find a hidden world in my local park, but I do know what it’s like to be a bullied teenage girl, looking for a job or how an advertising office works. So on the foundation formed from things I know I build worlds that I do not, discovering along the way how they work and passing on the details to my readers, hoping to take them on the journey with me.
‘An author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience, but the ways in which a story-germ uses the soils of experience are extremely complex, and attempts to define the process are at best guesses from evidence that is inadequate and ambiguous.’ JRR Tolkien
I have recently realised that the backbone of my series of stories are about my own life even though I didn’t set out to do this at all.
It’s strange, isn’t it, how these things happen? But I think if we are writing from a place of authenticity, using our own voice, we can’t escape using our own experiences in some form or another.
I really enjoyed this post, Helen. It’s beautifully written and thought-provoking too.
I’m just back from a talk that sought to damn Shakespeare detractors. By that, I mean those people who seek to argue not merely that some of Shakespeare’s work was collaborative (something I believe is generally accepted) but that much, if not all of it, was written by someone else entirely because – and here’s the killer thing – a Grammar school boy from the sleepy backwater of Stratford couldn’t possibly have written about Dukes in Venice or Kings of England. It’s an elitist argument that skips the point that no-one, surely, of whatever class could have personal experience of fairies (MND etc) and ignores the fact that it’s human emotions and relationships that are the overwhelming feature of the plays – and, surely, there Will Shakespeare was drawing on his own experiences and observations. And that’s where all of us can claim some similarity or kinship with Shakespeare: as you say, we all bring something of ourselves and our own lives to what we right. It might not be immediately recognisable but it’s there all the same.
Absolutely Louise, I totally agree. Another example would be of the Bronte sisters who lived fairly sheltered lives but were able to write powerful emotional novels like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights despite the fact their experiences of such things were quite limited. As writers we can take what we know and build on it and, as I said in my comment to Barbara, if we are writing with our own voice we can’t help but bring something of ourself to the story 🙂
Ugh, *write* not *right*.
Hi Helen, I felt what it was like to be onstage at the Opera House with you! How exciting!
Yes, I’ve used snippets from my own life and from family stories in my novel too. Often, I’ve twisted and turned them inside-out and they’d be unrecognisable to all but a few. It helps in particular to be able to create a scene if you have experience of similar. A couple of decades ago, when I was an intern, I came across a dead baby in its bassinette out the back of the nurses’ station of the gynaecological ward. Because I didn’t know it was dead, I went over to investigate. It looked perfect, just as if it was asleep. I’ve used that memory in my novel—of a dead, but perfect, baby. It’s funny how these memories come back once you start to write …
Wow, that’s a fairly powerful memory to have! It is true, isn’t it, how these things come back to you? When I was writing about the terrible date I relived how annoyed I was about the whole thing, so it was quite interesting to give the experience to my character and let her express how I felt. In a way it links back to my previous post about where our ideas come from, the things our subconscious throws up for us to add to the story.