I often use events that happened to me in real life as the basis for my fiction. In my novel, THE SUMMER OF NAKED SWIM PARTIES, I took memories from many years of my childhood and condensed them into one crazy summer where the grown-ups swim naked and smoke pot, and the kids try to figure out how they fit in to the naked-swimming, pot-smoking life. So far, no one in my family has been hurt by what I’ve written. I’ve discovered that most people don’t remember many of the things that have happened to them, so they simply don’t recognize themselves when they’ve been fictionalized. I am now calling this lack of memory of one’s past The Keychain Effect. Here’s why:
One of my friends in high school was a very clever, smart-mouthed girl whom I’ll call Beth. Beth was intelligent, brave, funny—she had all the qualities of a good friend. She was also beautiful in an extreme way—always prettier than everyone around her. (Having a very beautiful friend, by the way, is good for you, it teaches you the lesson early on that there will always be someone smarter, prettier, and more successful than you and that you must simply be the best version of yourself that you can be.) Beth had long, thick, honey-blond hair….
…a nose with a lovely little tip, seductively flared nostrils, wonderfully-shaped black eyebrows, and bright hazel eyes. Boys loved her.
In the summer, my cousin, Mike, from New England often stayed with my family in Southern California. Mike was awed by all my friends, especially Beth. He lived in the New Hampshire countryside where there weren’t too many people of any sort (more cows and sheep)…
…and where there certainly weren’t many bold and beautiful blond girls like Beth. Mike was rendered practically speechless every time Beth walked in our house.
One hot, sunny day, Beth, my brother Josh, Mike and I were in the family room of my house, looking over a row of baked-clay keychains spread across the white tile counter top that separated the family room from the kitchen. My brother and sister and I had made the keychains earlier in the day. (My mother was an artist, so we were always doing art projects: etchings, paintings, clay-work.) Beth picked up a keychain that Josh had made. Josh was eleven at the time, Beth and I were sixteen. The keychain was an amazingly precise little sculpture of a woman’s face; she had huge pink lips and a blond afro.
“Did you really make this Josh?” Beth asked my brother. My cousin stepped in closer to get a better look at both Beth and the keychain she was holding. Mike was closer to Josh’s age than mine, but about six inches taller than Beth and I. He seemed huge.
“Yep, I made it.” Josh wasn’t particularly proud, he was the kind of kid who could do a lot of things really well.
“Can I have it?”
“Really?!” Beth asked. “You mean I can have it and use it and put my car keys on it and everything?!” Beth had a screechy voice that always sounded excited.
“You can do whatever you want with it,” Josh said. “Just don’t stick it up your butt.” (This is how Josh talked at age eleven.)
She let her dress fall and then stood there smiling. My brother, my cousin and I were hysterically laughing.
“Is it really IN your butt,” I asked, “or is it just wedged in your crack?”
Beth lifted her dress again, pulled down her underpants, turned around and bent over. Sure enough, the sculpted face was gone and all that remained was an empty silver key loop dangling out the edge of Beth’s butthole. My cousin’s face was the red of a cartoon drawing. He was shocked, choking on his laughter.
Recently Beth was visiting me in Baltimore where I live (Beth’s still in California) and she asked about my cousin. I told her that every time I see Mike, he brings up the keychain in the butt incident.
“What keychain in the butt incident?” Beth asked.
I was stunned that she didn’t remember. I recounted the story detail by detail. Beth laughed.
“Well,” she said, “I’m sure it’s true, but I don’t remember any of it.”
Now, you must understand, Beth has no brain dysfunction that would prevent her from remembering this story. It’s just that the act of having stuck a keychain in her butt didn’t mean that much to her, so she didn’t put it in her long-term memory. I, on the other hand, was practicing to be a writer (without knowing it). I couldn’t help but observe, note and remember all the details of everything unfolding around me. And my cousin, Mike, having never seen the bare butt of such a pretty girl, certainly was never going to let that image flee from his mind.
So, if you’re thinking of writing and you’re worried about using stuff from your real life, my advice to you is to go ahead and use it. I promise you, most people remember nothing of their past. Think of The Keychain Effect.