People ask me sometimes where I get my stories. It always catches me a little off-guard. I like to have my stories stand on their own. I like it when the world I have created for the novel is real enough that I disappear. The problem with this, is that I tend use skills I learned working as an actor to write. Like Method actors, I dig into the characters’ past, whether or not it is in the book, and into the characters’ psych so that I understand what motivates them to do what they’re doing. Once that is done, I let the book unfold as it will. I do not outline. I do not plot. I simply write. I put word to paper and let the characters decide what they’re going to do. That is not to say that the book is completely unplanned. I know where to begin and have a good idea of how the story will end. Everything in between comes as it will.
My stories are often generated from long thoughts. Things come to me. Sometimes, they are based on something that happened to me. Sometimes, it’s pure fiction. The Tragedy of Being Happy is somewhat autobiographical. I did spend a lot of time in psych hospitals as a teen. I did have a child that died. The book started as a series of dreams and flashbacks. I didn’t want to write it. I didn’t want to think about it. I kept myself so busy with my day job and family that I didn’t have time to worry over the past. But then it just started. One night, I couldn’t sleep and the thoughts came and I needed to do something to reduce the anxiety. Writing, while not really cathartic, does distract me. It reduces anxiety and keeps my mind occupied. Before I knew it, I was 10,000 words in. At that point, the book became a Project.
For the next eight months, I forced myself to sit and write every day. I changed things for more dramatic impact but the kernel of the story is true. Generally, I write about young people dealing with things young people shouldn’t have to deal. I write as an attempt to communicate what it is like for young people in the real world. I want to let people in my head, what it is like to be mentally ill or challenged with maladaptive behaviors. In the end, while the story started as a personal experience, I hope the book ends more externally, bringing my readers to a better understanding of those of who have lived more diverse lives.
William L. Alton has a BA and MFA in creative writing from Pacific University and has published a collection of flash fiction, Girls, two collections of poetry titled Heroes of Silence and Heart Washes Through, and two novels, Flesh and Bone, in 2015, and Comfortable Madness. He lives in Beaverton, Oregon, where he works with at-risk youth.