1. Meld disparate experiences into an unlikely fictional unit.
Sometime back, while on a visit to Kolkata, the Indian city of my birth, I went to see a friend in the old, northern part of the city. As we were chatting over tea, I heard a series of explosions. My friend explained that the old Chatterjee mansion on the corner was being demolished, to be replaced by an apartment complex. We went to the balcony to look at this beautiful, dilapidated home, with its aged marble exterior and its green-shuttered, floor-length windows. Even as we watched, a wrecking ball shattered a wall. Generations of families—grandparents, parents, widowed aunts, married sons with their wives and offspring—had loved and quarreled and outsmarted one another in that house. Its demise signaled the end of a way of life.
That night I lay in bed and imagined residing within such an orthodox home as a girl. What would I have loved? How might I have felt restricted? What might have caused me to rebel? A single protagonist alone could not express all the reactions one could have to this world-within-a-world, filled with traditions and secrets. What if there was another girl, a cousin? What if she responded vastly differently to the same rules? What if she discovered a secret too terrible to tell her beloved cousin?
These what-ifs (crucial to the writing process) fired up my imagination. I didn’t get any sleep that night, but by the time the hawkers on the street below started calling out their wares, I had the idea for my novel Sister of My Heart. During the rest of my visit, I went to as many old homes as I could. I mystified relatives by asking to see prayer rooms or storage areas under the stairs or old-style bathrooms with claw-footed tubs. I stood on terraces and recalled the games my cousins and I used to play. I looked down on the street below and tried to imagine how a young woman, restricted by orthodoxy, might feel as she viewed life passing her by. But in spite of all my field research, I still didn’t feel ready to write the novel. Something was missing, something pungent and powerful, a conflict that would impel the story forward.
Back in the U.S., I continued searching for that missing something in newspapers, in magazines, in my daily interactions with people. A frustrating year passed. Then one day I came across a TV program that discussed the problem of fetal sex selection, a significant issue in India that had troubled me in the past. Pregnant women (often coerced by their in-laws) would go to prenatal centers to learn the sex of the unborn child. If the fetus was a girl, it would often be aborted. As I watched the grainy footage of dimly lit centers where women kept their faces averted, I began to imagine those faces—and how the women they belonged to might have felt. In my mind, suddenly, a face came into clearer focus: that of one of the cousins in Sister of My Heart.
What would happen if she found herself in such a clinic? Who could she turn to? If her only choices were to have the abortion or to walk out of the marriage, what would she do? And, just like that, the missing chunk of the plot fell into place. Two very disparate experiences from my life, one personal and emotional, one objective and intellectual, had merged into an unlikely fictional unit.
To take one personal experience that is meaningful to you and let it inspire or inform your work can be powerful. To translate more than one of them into a single work can be exponentially more so. After all, while you will likely come across many people who can relate firsthand to any one of your life’s experiences, only you have lived them all. Find innovative ways to revisit and reinvent these meaningful moments in your fiction, and you quite literally will be writing the story that only you can write.