Writers Remix Their Lives (Sort Of)

A friend on Facebook remarked last week that after reading some of the early chapters of my novel CHICAGO TIME, that she noticed vague similarities to my life and used the phrase “loosely based.” I had to laugh because it’s true. Writers and artists always use bits of their own lives in their art.

There’s this fun Youtube video I found courtesy of Slate.


The person (Pogo) who made this took sounds, dialog, and scenes from the movie Monsters, Inc. and mixed them to make, well, musical elements and set them on top of a techno-based background. The result is a new music video.

This is not all that dissimilar to what writers do.

We also take inspiration from other writers. We also use our imaginations. We use bits and pieces of our own lives. We take a story we once heard an uncle tell us, an incident from our lives when we were seven, a situation a friend told us about, a structure borrowed from another artist, and an insight into the characters we’ve created, and mix it all together.

We coax all these elements (what are oftentimes disparate) into a cohesive whole. It’s this coaxing that takes the longest. It requires lots of re-writing.

The best evocation of this type of remixing I have ever come across is in the movie Providence by Alain Resnais. It has Sir John Gielgud, Dirk Bogarde, and Ellen Burstyn. The film features some fantastic one-liners, like, “Science soothes the savage rectum” and “Don’t I deserve to be fucked by a genius?!” It’s also a very unusual and sometimes confusing film. The viewer follows along as the dying writer, played by Gielgud, struggles with the plot of the story he’s working on.

(I would be remiss if I did not note that I was introduced to this film in a class by the wonderful writer John Rechy…lest he ever find out I did not properly credit him. “Ladies and gentlemen, did you know that Richard Hellinga a former student of mine referenced a movie called Providence and did NOT credit me for introducing it to him? And can I just tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that that Gore Vidal is such a bitch!” The latter sentence is something Rechy actually said.

He also said a lot more things. “I haven’t seen that shade of green in a long time, Richard. But it suits you. I think you just might bring it back.” He said that about a green sweater I was wearing. He was very concerned about what we wore to his class because, as he said, “Afterall, ladies and gentlemen, I have to look at you for three hours every week.”…It was quite a class. Along the way I learned a lot about imagery and how to take control of your prose.)

Back to Providence. The movie jumps from the writer’s present life, where he is confined largely to a bed, with scenes from his overflowing imagination that’s attempting to shape a work-in-progress. Only at the very end do we see his family as it actually is. I won’t give away much more than that. But the film does a wonderful job of showing the wild swings and evolution of a project in progress.

The key here is imagination. It’s imagination which both fuels the remix and conducts the transformation of events and images, making it all into something new.

I use the term “remix” because in this day and age it’s easily understood. It’s an imperfect metaphor. In the future, after several leaps in technology have been made, giving us a new perspective on the world and how it is processed, there will probably be a whole new metaphor, a better approximation, to use in understanding what writers do.


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