Creative writing can come from many sources, and personal experiences and stories from friends can provide inspiration for your next writing project. Some people argue that you can’t tell a story with anecdotes alone, and that writing someone else’s life is biography and not creative writing, but I contend that “true stories” and even tall tales can pepper your writing with humor and local color. As a playwright, I am forever taking mental notes of my friends and family’s behavior to help me build realistic characters.
We’ve all taken the role of observer when seeking information on a particular character we’ve created. I have sat and watched complete strangers for several minutes to try and determine a motive for their actions, and other times I’ve even engaged them and asked questions. Frequently, I’ve been rewarded for my time. I remember watching my mom and dad building a puzzle on a card table at home. They had completed the puzzle border and were filling in sections when I noticed a plastic spatula on the table. So I asked, “What’s the spatula for?” And my dad answered, “We use it to move sections of the puzzle into place when they get too large to move by hand.” Genius! My parents had worked out a practical solution to a problem, and that small anecdote will be reborn in a scene of a play I’m writing.
And as it turns out, my parents are a gold mine of similar anecdotes. They live with three cats, and as a guest at their house, I quickly observed the role of the cats in their daily life: the cats all but rule their home. For example, my dad was adamant that the cats not leave the front yard and cross the street, so every time one of them crossed the street, he would dutifully walk out the front door and shepherd the wayward feline home. This scenario played out several times a day, and I realized my father had a deep-seated motive for protecting his cats. They were his kids; they were precious, and this was what he thought a dutiful father should do.
And then there was the neurotic cat that liked to hide under the bed spread and sleep there as a near-unidentifiable lump. My mom told me he liked to retreat under the covers as a place of security, so if he knocked over a stack of paperbacks or upended a vase, he was sure to retreat under the covers of the bed. Makes sense to me: a cat under the covers can’t see other people, so in turn can’t be seen.
And it also happens that the cats actually helped my parents with the puzzle building. As much as the youngest of the pack was likely to bat a puzzle piece off the card table onto the floor, the other two cats were just as likely to help my parents find it later. The carpet under the table is a dark oriental rug with whorls of patterns, and it’s the perfect hiding place for a small puzzle piece. But ask any cat owner and you’ll learn that a housecat immediately detects the slightest change in its environment. That’s a fact my parents gladly exploited: while they worked on their puzzle, they would be mindful of any time a cat approached the table, and if it stopped to sniff a spot on the carpet, it was likely a fallen puzzle piece. That’s sheer inspiration to me, and it begs to be shared in writing.
Now, as a playwright, I would normally avoid including live animals in a script, but because my parents’ cats were so shy and retiring, it occurred to me I didn’t actually need them to appear on stage; their presence is felt (or seen) continually through the actions of my mom and dad. And as a writing device, I like to tell meaningful stories over a backdrop of mundane daily life, so the time I spent observing my folks at home really paid off.
As for the aforementioned anecdotes being biographical and my characters being based on actual people, I ensure that those elements do not comprise the bulk of my story nor shape the story’s plot. I’m not telling the story of my parents’ life; instead I am creating new characters to tell my own story – what’s important to me – using events and inspirational episodes from home. I know that as I write, I will face challenges in fully developing my characters and their motives; but the way my parents interact with their cats is similar to the experience of many pet owners, so I know it will resonate with my audience. What’s most important to me is that for a brief while I had a window into my parents’ life, and the humor of their situation and practical solutions they discovered have inspired me to write yet another story. And you, too, can find inspiration from the people around you.
Spriggan Radfae is a Radical Faerie composing plays, poetry and creating exquisite portraits of people with a humble pencil and sometimes oil paint. He is a Virginia native, recently based out of Charlottesville, and has spent several years living on the road at various communes and intentional communities. He enjoys playing baroque music on the recorder and collects toys, seashells and other people’s anecdotes.Follow us!
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