Turning Personal Experience Into Fiction: “The Wounded House”

Black Static 20, which includes my story “The Wounded House,” is now out. I’m thrilled to be included in an awesome publication with awesome company, and it gives me a good excuse to babble about the story’s evolution. (For anyone planning to read the issue, I am obliged to warn that there are slight spoilers ahead for my story.)

In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott mentions sending a short story off to an editor who sent it back with a note that said: “You have made the mistake of thinking that everything that has happened to you is interesting.”

In relation to my first drafts of “The Wounded House,” I’d paraphrase that to say: “You have made the mistake of thinking that everything that has happened to you makes for good fiction.”

In “The Wounded House,” the eponymous house is based on my paternal grandmother’s home. Like the house I describe in the story, it was an old duplex full of rooster knickknacks, and it smelled “as if the walls had bathed in the scent of every cat that had ever brushed against them.” And at night, I hated going upstairs alone; darkness lent a feeling to the upper floor that creeped me out to no end.

The impetus behind “The Wounded House” wasn’t the house specifically, but a dream I had there as a kid when I was spending the night. My grandfather was sick at the time, so he slept in the middle bedroom while my sister slept in a tiny shoebox of a room at one end of the hall and I stayed with my grandmother in her bedroom at the other end of the hall. Then came the dream–one that even skeptical me must confess felt extraordinarily real, to the point where I sometimes believed it was. In the dream, I woke up in bed in the middle of the night, my grandmother asleep to my left. At the foot of the bed, I saw this:


I didn’t draw that picture until many years later, during my final year of college. I don’t remember what prompted me to finally put it down on paper, but I do know that the image was–and still is–quite vivid in my head.

I didn’t draw the other element I remember, which was a man tied to a chair beside the creepy sheeted figure. And there was nothing else to remember since I promptly hid under the covers, and that was the last thing I knew until morning.

I started writing “The Wounded House” during college (quite possibly about the same time I drew the picture, though I can’t recall for certain), set it aside after about 800 words, then finally came back to it about four years ago. I was surprised to discover that my 800-word fragment was actually some of the best descriptive work I had done up until that point, especially considering it was from a time when I had been writing fiction on a rather half-assed basis. Maybe the strength of the description was because I had such a rich source to draw on–real life.

Real life, though, also became a problem with the story. My first draft was a bunch of scenes inspired by real life: the night I spent at my grandmother’s when I was in middle school (my grandfather had passed away by that point), and I was thrilled because she not only let me watch gory movies, but sat there and watched them with me. A recreation of all the times I had darted up the stairs to the bathroom at night, scared that something horrible was going to get me if I didn’t close the door fast enough. The freaky sheet ghost. The day sometime after my grandmother had died when I had to bicycle over and let the exterminator into the house before it went up for sale.

They were well-written scenes (at least I like to think they were), but they had been tossed together without a strong sense of plot or through line. As a whole, they didn’t hold together as a piece of fiction because I was sticking too closely to what had happened in real life.

After some revising, particularly of the last scene (the exterminator trip had been jettisoned in favor of the protagonist and her father cleaning the house after the grandmother’s death), I thought I had turned it into an actual story. I submitted that version as one of my application stories when I applied to the Odyssey Writing Workshop. It was a good enough to help get me into the program, but as I learned when our fearless Odyssey leader Jeanne critiqued the piece, it still wasn’t quite there. Jeanne didn’t know it was drawn from real life when she critiqued it, but her comments on the thin-as-a-super-model plot hammered home for me that I was still sticking too close to what had happened in real life.

I had made the mistake of thinking that everything that has happened to me makes for good fiction.

One of the problems with those early drafts was the sheeted ghost. It had no particular connection to or effect on the story and the characters. It didn’t move anything forward. It was just a dose of random creepiness thrown into the middle.

So for the next revision, I finally let go of real life. The main point of departure became the grandfather in the story, talked about but never present as a character. In real life, my grandfather had been very much alive when I had my sheeted figure dream. And when he died, it was from Alzheimer’s and other complications of old age. But to tie the sheeted figure more directly into the story, I made it the ghost of the protagonist’s grandfather, brutally murdered after getting involved with the wrong people.

Once I made that departure from real life, it became easier to make others. I completely rewrote the last scene again, and now what’s there is pure fiction. Well, maybe not purely. My grandmother did die of a heart attack, but she was buried, not cremated. Having ashes to scatter served the story, though, so I made another point of departure from real life.

“The Wounded House” is still isn’t particularly heavy on plot–it’s most definitely more of a character piece–but it is, I’d like to think, a full-fledged story now and not random bits of my life thrown together.

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