When I was in fourth grade, there was a fat girl in my class. She wore glasses that slid down her nose and hair that hung lank and she had breasts (breasts!) when the rest of the girls in the class wore undershirts with one pink flower embroidered in the middle (bought two for a dollar by our thrifty mothers at the Woolworth’s). When this girl, whom I’ll call Sally, walked flat-footed across the classroom I cringed, afraid that if her skirt touched me I’d catch her cooties.
One day she invited me over to her house, and in front of my mother.
“Of course Cindy will come over,” my mother answered for me, and at that moment I hated my mother, I wanted her to shrivel up and die.
That didn’t happen. Instead, I went over to Sally’s house for a sleepover the following weekend, and my world opened up. Sally lived in a trailer, which thrilled me. No one I knew lived in a trailer, everyone lived in houses, and most of those houses were situated on farmland or large country plots. Sally’s trailer didn’t have running water and we had to pee in a bucket, another thrill. In the morning, instead of a hot breakfast, we ate Frito’s corn chips and French onion dip, and when her older brother dropped the F-word twice, no one yelled or threatened to wash his mouth out with soup.
It was one of the most thrilling sleepovers I’d ever attended.
I don’t know what happened to Sally, her family moved away before the end of the school year.
There were rumors of her father’s gambling problem, her mother’s drinking.
Yet, I feel intrinsically tied to her. In a sense I love her. She gave me something valuable and priceless: a vision of how other people live, not the fairy-tale lives from books and movies but the grit of people struggling to make ends meet, to pull themselves up, to survive against all odds.
Of course, back in that small farming township, we all struggled, to one point or another. Yet Sally’s family was at the lower end of the spectrum and to my childhood eyes, with my childhood imagination, this made her, and her world, exotic.
Maybe that’s why I’ve resurrected her in my second book. Though, to be truthful, I never intended for this to happen. It wasn’t until I began the last rounds of edits, when I sat down and read with the eyes of an editor, that I felt a familiar tug toward my character, a tug stronger than the affection we instinctively feel toward the fictional people we create. This was something more, an almost protective sense of wanting to reach inside the story and embrace this girl.
‘Why, I know her,’ I thought as I read over the childhood scenes. ‘I am certain that I know her.”
And then it hit me: I had fictionalized a time from my childhood, and I had used not only parts of Sally but parts of myself mirrored through Sally, parts that reveal the vulnerabilities of my character, and the strengths, and that strange dichotomy that comes when fact and fiction blend to produce something stronger and more lasting than reality.
“Write what you know,” they tell you in grad school, though they also tell you the opposite, “Write what you don’t know.”
No matter—they are both the same. We write what is inside of us, and our conflicts and visions gain strength with each truth, each instance of emotional candor.
Fiction is based on imagination, and it doesn’t claim to tell a true story. Yet it often tells a story more honest than any nonfiction.
Camus said it better: “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”
As I read over the last of my edits, I wondered: Does Sally remember that night I spent at her house? Does she even remember me? Does she have any idea that my short experience in her company led to the basis of a novel character’s childhood?
Then I began wondering: Have I done anything memorable or made a lasting impression on someone’s life or childhood enough that they’ve unconsciously or consciously disguised as a character? And if so, would I ever know? Would fate pull me toward that book? Will Sally, wherever she is, be magically pulled toward my book?
Diane Setterfield said, “A good story is always more dazzling than a broken piece of truth.”
This is what Sally did, so many years ago: She dazzled me.
Cinthia Ritchie is a recovering journalist who writes and runs mountain trails in Anchorage with her dog, Seriously. She’s a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, two-time Rasmuson Individual Artist Award recipient, and recipient of a Best American Essay 2013 Notable Mention. Find her work at New York Times Magazine, Sport Literate, Best American Sports Stories 2013, Evening Street Review, Under the Sun, Water-Stone Review, damfino Press, The Boiler Journal, Panoplyzine, Barking Sycamores, Clementine Unbound, GNU Journal, Foliate Oak Review, Deaf Poets Society, Mary, Theories of HER anthology, Grayson Books Forgotten Women anthology and others. Her first novel, Dolls Behaving Badly, released from Hachette Book Group. She blogs about writing and Alaska life at www.cinthiaritchie.com.