I write about people and obvs that means secrets. Secrets are the gravy of a novel, the thing that makes a story a bit more interesting. The twist, the surprise ending, the big reveal. The thing you like to go back to and mop up some more because it’s just sooo good.
A secret, according to the dictionary, is something that is not known or seen or not meant to be known or seen by others.
We all have secrets, and we all hold other people’s secrets. A writer makes them up from her own experience, and borrows (steals?) other people’s. It’s up to the writer how she uses those secrets.
I know of one writer, Liz Jones of The Daily Fail, who feels that as her friends know she is a writer if they divulge something secret to her it is fair game for her to write about. Liz does not have an empathetic approach towards her subjects. She does have a champion ability to create cruel, clickbait articles. I would like to be known for writing universal themes that get to the heart of the human experience, not a psychopathic ability to shut off all compassion to my fellow creatures. I’ve never liked the cold.
Another writer, Anne Lamott, famously said, ‘you own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.’ Anne’s approach is different to Liz’s approach. Liz shares other people’s secrets that aren’t hers. But if Anne writes about a moment in her life that wove and knotted with other people, well. Fair game, because that was her story too.
(What about libel laws? The dictionary says libel is: a published false statement that is damaging to a person’s reputation; a written defamation. So if you can prove what someone writes is false, and that it is damaging to your reputation, then it’s libel.)
What about me, what secrets do I have? Are they novel-worthy? Plenty of my stories are not known or seen by most people, and I’ve listed a few of these not-knowns below (not-knowns until now, you honoured guest), so the dictionary would call them secrets. How will I use my secrets? Some of them are interesting enough to be sliced up and used in novels. Maybe. But just like your not-knowns, most of my not-knowns are probably only interesting enough to add little facets to a fictional character.
1.Rum makes my face puffy.
Although I love (in no particular order) Vesper Martinis, Bloody Marys, Mojitos (rum), and Margaritas, my secret favourite drink is a Piña Colada. I know! How very Spring Break in Daytona Beach. Don’t care. The problem is the puffy face. So I usually stick to wine or whisky. The secret here is that I love a paper umbrella cocktail best of all. Probably should have kept that hidden.
2. I love being petite.
When I was a kid I heard that caffeine stunts your growth so I used to drink the dregs of my dad’s coffee every day in hopes I wouldn’t grow. Weird but true. I wanted to be a jockey then. Also true, but not so weird. Just ask my friend JTracy, she knows this stuff. Maybe she doesn’t know about the coffee dregs though and so this could be the first time I’ve ever revealed that. Also, when I was at university for my first degree I met a Thai woman who was full of quick wit and fire and I LOVED her and was envious that she was even more petite than I was. (I’ve never been envious of a taller woman, but I really love Cindy Crawford’s hair.) What’s the secret here? Maybe that I was a weird kid who drank the dregs from her dad’s coffee cup.
3. I passed the Advanced Driver test.
You know, the big one, not the Pass Plus. My family all know this. I go on about how important it is do be a very safe driver. They probably roll their eyes, BUT. It is important. What’s the secret here? I was motivated to do this not to be a safer driver (the noble reason) but because I was tired of comments from men about women drivers (the angry reason). I also hate comments about women not being able to read maps. I read maps for my dad on road trips across the States as a little kid, for Pete’s sake. This is not a superpower reserved for men. And while we’re at it, I also hate the idea that my girls should only do girl jobs in the house. They’re with me on that. We are all capable of the same jobs around the house. Come the revolution it won’t matter so much if your nails get chipped.
4. I would love, love, love to be a rally driver.
Yes, really. What’s the secret here? It’s just not something I share. I don’t know why. Maybe I should, maybe if I did I would run into someone who knows someone who trains rally drivers and get my chance.
5. I have scars on my face and my shoulder from being attacked twice by a dog when I was little little.
I used to be terrified of dogs because of it, but when I was five and standing with a friend in front of a loud poodle and my guts were clenching with fear and I thought, ‘A POODLE? Seriously?’ I decided right then that I would not be afraid of dogs any more. It worked. What’s the secret here? Nothing to do with the scars. Scars have never bothered me. Maybe the secret is that the kick-arse wedge of my personality is actually an intrinsic part of who I am, a wide stripe of red glitter across my soul. I don’t go around in DM’s and tats swearing like a sailor at male chauvinists, but it flashes out across the sky like fireworks when that door is swung open. I know a few of you have seen it.
6. Jelly rats are my nemesis.
Nothing grosses me out, no creepy crawlies make me climb on chairs and shriek, I can clean up all kinds of yuck from animals or children (or friends, on a bad night out), BUT I discovered my kryptonite the other day: jelly rats. I was clearing the old vegetable garden and found a bucket of rainwater and old leaves and I poured it out and found FOURTEEN RATS that had slipped in and drowned. They were all at different stages of decomposition and the oldest two were hairless and wobbly and… jelly-like. Ungh. Just typing it makes me retch a little. What’s the secret here? All my enemies need to do is throw a jelly rat in my face and I will collapse at the side of the road vomming in the gutter, kick-arse red soul glitter pooling around me.
7. I love healthy food.
My mom was a whole grain hippy when I was growing up, so to me, healthy food is comfort food. What’s the secret here? Maybe that avocados are as much of a treat for me as chocolate cake. And that’s annoying in the way people who always like following rules are annoying. I get it. I try to blend in and eat junk food too. (And drink Piña Coladas! *twirls the pink umbrella*)
8. I’m a good shot.
As in, surprisingly good. Handguns or rifles. (I’m also surprisingly good as a beginner golfer. I’ve wondered sometimes if there is a gene that codes for the same thing.) What’s the secret here? As an American in Britain I am supposed to be fervently anti-gun, or else I must be a redneck. Admitting I like to shoot guns is risky. I don’t want to shoot guns at people or animals, though. So, there’s that.
9. I am a sucker for clever quotes.
I can’t help it. I even apologise before I share them with friends because I am fully aware how cheesy they are but I love them so much I still share. Maybe I just love words. And words woven into pretty patterns attract me. And my OH knows this so when he plays songs for me he chooses them for the lyrics. What’s the secret here? Maybe it’s like jelly rats. Another weakness of mine, but in a nice, non-vom way. I am easily enchanted by words, so anyone who wants to enchant me now has the key to that door.
10. Traits I most value in myself: integrity, creativity and analytical skills. Trait I like least: easily distracted. (Squirrel!) I’m working on it. The secret here? I’ll leave that for you to find between the lines. I can’t do all the work for you.
That’s it for my secrets, my not-knowns.
Oh. You wanted the real juicy ones? The proper gravy? The true not-meant-to-be-knowns?
If I tell you, they wouldn’t be secrets. So.
I’ve got a bag full of mine and other people’s secrets. Would I use them in a novel, dressed up as make-believe? A fiction? Well. Writers need secrets to write. But a writer can create a lot on her own after you (and I) have been raw material. I might borrow a few slices of a few people’s stories here and there, mix them up a bit, add some of my own spice, then serve it in a novel, but it’d never make a gravy you’d recognise as yours. My novel is make believe and I have no urge to tell other people’s stories in it. It wouldn’t be mine anymore!
Like Liz and Anne I hold other people’s secrets, things they’ve told me or things I’ve witnessed or things we’ve shared. Some of those people I like, some I love and one or two I loathe. Why not tell secrets of people I loathe? It’s not a trick question. You remember, the novel wouldn’t be mine if I made it full of other people’s stories.
But also, refer back to item number 10. I might be easily distracted, but I have integrity (which has taken a lot of work to achieve and I love and cherish it and DO NOT want to tarnish it even for you) and even if I loathe one or two people, I don’t see how the world is made a better place by sharing their secrets.
And then another reason is that I have this thing, maybe it can be Number 11 on the list, although it might already be known by others. It’s another weakness, like jelly rats and clever quotes, but different, something that might be my undoing in battle: even with the people I loathe I don’t see them as 2D arsehats, I see them as 3D arsehats who have parents who raised them and possibly pets who greet them when they arrive home and maybe they’ve had something really shit done to them that makes them behave like arsehats—oh, I can feel a quote typing out through my fingertips (sorry): “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” How pink and fluffy. But you know? I think the word I’m looking for is compassion. I feel it even for those people.
(Except the Mango Mussolini. There isn’t a lot of compassion in the well-o-love for that dude. I would be mean enough to hide his TicTacs without hesitation.)
Back to the point:
Your secrets and my secrets might stir together to make the gravy of a novel, but I won’t let your secrets take over my novel. Na-uh. Or my secrets, for that matter. Fiction might be inspired by raw material in real life, but it is just make believe in the end.