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Ghost Heart

[1]
Photo by Aramisse

It’s right there in my author’s note at the back of the book: I’m the daughter of a drug dealer and I wrote a book about the daughter of a drug dealer. After Where did you get the inspiration for this story? this is the most common question that readers and interviewers ask me: Is this book autobiographical? The short answer is no, which tends to leave a lot of people unsatisfied. The long answer is that in some way all my stories are autobiographical, and yet not. The difference between the memoir I’ll never write and the novels I can’t stop writing is all about processing personal experience into fiction. In true writerly fashion, I struggle to describe this process without an appropriate metaphor, and happily, medical science has provided me with one.

In an astounding breakthrough in the early 2000s, Doris Taylor at the Texas Heart Institute began experimenting with decellularizing heart tissue, in hopes of replacing regular organ transplants with organs created especially for the recipient. Taking a donor heart and using common chemical detergents, researchers have successfully scrubbed all the cellular structures of the donor away. What remains looks less like a human body part and more like the ethereal chrysalis of an alien butterfly: white, bloodless, and strangely architectural.

After the heart has been decellularized, it is injected with stem cells from the future recipient and placed into a bioreactor, which functions as the heart’s artificial lungs. There it is allowed to mature into a beating heart that will be a perfect tissue match. When the technique is perfected, likely in the near future, the recipient of this type of transplant will be in no danger of rejecting the organ, and will need no immunosuppressant drugs.

This is also the method I use to turn my life experiences into fiction. First, I take the heart of the thing I have lived, always the heart. Next, I remove all the blood and tissue of my existence, and with it, all of the emotions that I’ve kept stored there. It’s not that emotions aren’t needed–they are–but that my own are not the focus of the story. Once I have stripped all of that away, I can better see the mysteries and the infrastructure of what I’ve lived. I hold the ghost heart in my hands and identify the parts of the experience that I need for the story. Then I submerse the heart into the blood of my character.

In the case of my last novel, the story of a drug dealer’s daughter, I took all those things I had seen and heard during the years I lived in the orbit of my father’s business. I focused on the details of that part of my life. The dark country roads, the small towns, the lonely people who inhabit them, the conversations and life choices that take place during long summer nights and drug binges. Then I put my characters into those places and situations. How would they react to a scene I witnessed? How would their relationship dynamics develop with other characters? What outcomes would shift when someone other than me lived in the story?

I’ve done it many times before, including mining my time as a church secretary for the conflicts and crises of a character’s life. With my new novel, I repeated the whole process, focusing on the parts of my life that intersect with my family’s long history of hoarding, and my own personal experience with mental illness and chronic pain. The main character has problematic relationships with her mother and her sister, and while there may be echoes of the relationships I have with my family, that’s all they are. It’s no more than the shape of the ghost heart under the story’s tissue, the story informed by my observations. After all, the character is not me, and her family is not my mother or my sister. The dynamics are all different, because of the way each person reacts differently to the same set of circumstances. A painful betrayal for one person tends to be a painful betrayal for another person, but the way a character responds is entirely unique to their personality.

While it’s not as neat a process as creating a ghost heart in a laboratory, the writer’s tools are similar to submerging a story in a vat of chemicals to scrub it clean. The process requires introspection and brutal honesty, not just about what kind of person a character is, but what kind of person I am. To understand how something will affect a character, I have to know how it affected me. To subtract myself from the equation, I have to be able to see the boundaries of myself. This requires a willingness to turn a scene or a piece of dialogue over and over in my mind until I see how it connects to any other piece of the story. Sometimes that’s the hard work of re-writing a chapter dozens of times. Other times it’s as simple as taking the dog for a walk and letting my mind wander.

At the end, after I’ve done all that, after I’ve submerged my lived experience in the details of my characters, the ghost heart is transformed. It is no longer a blanched white scaffolding; it is the living, beating heart of the story.

When you’re using your own experiences in a story, what techniques do you employ to transform the material from autobiographical to fiction?

About Bryn Greenwood [2]

BRYN GREENWOOD is a fourth-generation Kansan, one of seven sisters, and the daughter of a mostly reformed drug dealer. She is the NYT bestselling author of The Reckless Oath We Made, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, Last Will, and Lie Lay Lain. She lives in Lawrence, Kansas.