A Writers Way to Profit from Memories

“A Writer’s Way to Profit from Memories” (article)

by Virginia Andrews

November 1982

Since my first novel was published (Flowers in the Attic), not long afterward

many letters came to fill my mailbox; clearly indicating that most of my readers

think I am writing about my own life. Only some ways is this true. Cathy

Dollanganger is not me, persona, but me only in her way of responding to the

traumatic events in her life. Her emotions are my emotions her dilemmas are

somewhat similar to mine, but not in anyway precisely.

It’s difficult to say where a writer leaves off and the character takes over.

One could hope to be as verbal as Cathy, and say all the right things at the right

time, but in real life that seldom happens. Dialogue can move the action along

speedily. When you construct a good strong character, often he or she will take off

and lead the way, often surprising the author. Shout hooray when your characters do

this for you.

I do know that my mind is full of childhood and young adult memories and

how I reacted to different situations. Somewhere along the line, in my most difficult

years, those troublesome adolescent ones, I decided that I would never forget the

differences between adult rationalizations and the literal way a child looks at the

world and life. I suppose at the time I was thinking of my own children and how I

hoped to be (someday) a very understanding mother.

Metaphors are wasted on children. A rose is a rose and nothing more. When

we are young adults we tend to forget this. Many adolescents write to me not

understanding why I named my first book what I did. And so when I look back and

try to understand why I write as I do, and why so many of my fans are convinced

only an autobiography can be written as emotionally and powerfully, I realize I do

pour a great deal of myself into my stories. I suffer when my characters suffer. I

lose weight when they do. (Take notice, all of you writers who are overweight—

starve your characters.)

In formulating situations and characters, I take bits and pieces from my life,

from the lives of my friends, lives from the tales told to me by older family

members, and I weave them into my novels. I use my dreams too. It seems my

dreams are the most powerful imaginative force I have going for me, but for

memories. Yet, somewhere in my chest near my heart, lives a force I draw upon for

ideas too. The more I trust it, the more willing it is to give. It seems I have a

warehouse of memories, my own, and those belonging to others to draw upon. If

you don’t have that kind of retentive memory, keep a journal.

There is the magic of memories… they do not have to be inhibited by the

strict truth. A writer can, and a writer must, embroider and embellish what might be

a simple tale without all the imaginative trappings. To take one’s own life story and

tell it exactly as it happened (unless you’ve led one very exciting life), usually

makes for less then suspenseful story. A novel has to be paced so it has peaks of

excitement that grow higher as it approaches the climax. Life, just doesn’t move

along speedily enough, as a novel must. Dialogue in reality can be so mundane as to

be absolutely boring.

One of my greatest methods of finding story ideas is to take one situation

from my life and ask, “what if I hadn’t run as fast as I had? What if I had been

caught? What then? Would I have suffered–been kidnapped–raped? – Then killed?

In my newest novel, My Sweet Audrina, due out in mid August of 82, the

First and Best Audrina meets her fate in the woods, while I could have met mine in

the valley between a ring of low hills that swallowed my screams for help, I was

lucky enough to have escaped. Pity my poor character who didn’t.

For a certainty in a novel I write the worst is bound to happen. But

fortunately I was a fast runner, and clever enough to avoid most pitfalls. My

characters are clever enough and fast enough, but by playing God, I always trip

them up in someway, so as to allow what I escaped to happen to them, and then the

fun begins. (Or terror.) It chills my blood to think maybe God up there is just

another aspiring novelist hoping to entertain himself too by letting the worst

happen, heaven forbid.

If you think back to the fairy tales you’ve read, all the stories ended once the

dragon, the giant, or the witch died. With these fabled words… and so they lived

happily ever after,” the story closed out. That’s because once happiness is achieved

the tension is gone. It is the striving, the difficulties, the obstacles to overcome that

makes for a wonderful tale you wish would never end. Even those romance writers

who wind up with their heroine finally capturing the man of her dreams, will when

writing the sequel, put that loving couple through hell again. For it’s the jeopardy

that we achieve the thrills, and never, never is love quite enough. Heaven is not

served to anyone on a pink platter. Heaven is the reward for surviving long and

difficult tribulations.

When you sit at your typewriter to begin your novel, think back to some

traumatic event in your own life. Take it, change it about and make the worst

happen, then compound the trouble with more dilemmas. If your main protagonist

is lost in the desert, miles from civilization make a leak in the canteen so thirst is a

problem. If your character finds water, make it poisoned. If it isn’t poisoned, have

him/her fall down and break a leg so the water can’t easily be reached. In other

words, play God, a bored God who wants to be entertained (just as your readers do),

and bring on the dragons, witches, ogres and demons meaning all those little

calamities that can put our lives in peril.

We writers keep that fragile bubble of happiness always never thought I’d fly

to see him. Imagine my surprise when I rose at five in the morning to see the dew

on his “fabulous” rose garden, and found to my utter amazement, he had two pitiful

rose bushes struggling to survive near his back door.

That uncle of mine would make a first rate author. He could stretch a drive to

the city into a safari of many perils… and that’s what novels are all about. And in

your head tucked neatly in some brain closet, resides not one or two great novels

but hundreds. All you have to do is search, elaborate, ask again and again, what if?

—Then stretch rose bush into garden… but don’t forget the thorns.

(Some rewrites)

Pity my poor character, Audrina, who didn’t.

For a certainty, in a novel I write the worst is bound to happen. There wasn’t

an Arden to weaken my determination, and perhaps I fought harder. A writer has

the chance to play God and heaven help us if that God above is just another aspiring

author hoping to entertain himself too by allowing the worst to happen always.

(Transcribed from the original document housed in the V.C. Andrews special collection at The

Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. The collection’s website says this

article was published as “Turning a Profit from Memories” in Writer’s Magazine, November 1982

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