I’m still chewing this over so blogging about it may be premature. The other night I mentioned to writing pals that I can’t help but write from my life. That’s usual I think, although people bury themselves in their words to a greater or lesser extent, so sometimes it is obviously a fictionalised account of personal experience (Sylvia Plath) and other times the reality is almost invisible (Ted Hughes.)
I have felt lonely, awkward, happy, and sad. I have had relationships, I have children, I have been ill etc. So when my fiction has a character that feels alone I draw on my own understanding of that emotion in order to convey it. That’s what we all do, right? But what about when I, owner of sixteen pet slugs, write a story about a slug? I draw part of my story from my own experiences, and yet the slug in my story is not my slug, and the slug owner in the story is not me. The things that happen are not real. It is a made-up story. What if my fictional woman picks up a saucepan and bangs her slug to death with it? Does that mean it is something I have done. Nope. But what about her feelings? If she is feeling desperate and angry and fizzing with violence when she flattens that slug I may call upon my own knowledge of how that feels in order to portray it.
I’m not the owner of sixteen slugs. I made that up. You know what I mean though.
My twins have special needs and I have written a story about a boy with special needs. He is not based on my boys. The mum in the story is not me. The situations that arise have not happened to us, the things said and done are all fiction. I draw on my experiences though, my knowledge. I feel okay writing about this made up boy with special needs because although my work is fiction I do have experience of how it may be, and so I feel that it is ok for me to explore.
I don’t have a pet slug. If I wrote a story about a pet slug I could research it, I could read books and articles. I could go in my garden and find a slug and force myself to touch it and write about that. Or I could just make it up. I could imagine that it would feel cool, and jelly, and squishy. That would be ok. Slugs won’t read the story and feel upset that it is inaccurate and that really they feel warm and wet. But. Hmm. I won’t write about a small African girl in a dusty village. I don’t feel that is my story to tell. I am uneasy about the cultural tourism that writers and readers so often engage in. Not my bag, man.
I have had heated debates with other writers about this. We are fiction writers and we make things up. Our imagination is the key we unlock our stories with, and we have the right to imagine anything. Yeah. But.
It was suggested by one writer I discussed this with that perhaps it was because I wasn’t talented enough as a writer that I couldn’t write these types of stories. Rude. I choose not to. I am uncomfortable with taking stories that aren’t mine.
The always awesome Kuzhali Manickavel said in a recent blog post “I am not going to ask why your story is about a Muslim Village of No Good Horrible Very Bad Things where all the girls get raped and raped and raped and raped and raped and everyone speaks some foreign Muslim language which makes them sound like they all have massive brain injuries because hey, that’s just how those crazy foreigners talk, right? I am not going to ask about this because people write this kind of stuff all the time, possibly because they believe that the chances of someone calling them on their bullshit are very slim to nil. This is why so many craptastic stories about “foreigners” get published. However. I do want to know why you would say that legions of white peacocks flooded the skies each dawn and alighted on everyone’s front lawns in the Muslim Village of No Good Horrible Very Bad Things. Legions of white peacocks? LEGIONS? FRONT LAWNS? WTF, are you on drugs? Is this sci-fi? Are you on drugs?”
And I think, she has a point, no?
I suppose what I seek is authenticity, because ultimately I look for truth in fiction. I look to fiction to supply absolute truth in a way that non-fiction sometimes fails to do. And I don’t mind at all if the truth is embedded in magical realism, or laid bare, or if it rhymes, or whatever. I don’t like sentimentality though, that almost wobbling on the brink of tears luxury of voyeuristic misery. I want to recognise, empathise and believe. I revel in the joy of feeling understood and connected in some way.
So we’re back to me writing somewhat biographically but not really.
Tania Hershman just reviewed Janice Galloway’s Collected Stories over at The Short Review. She comments:
“The next point is that where many authors cast their net far and wide and write stories set in many locations - be they cities, countries or other planets - Galloway needs no such exoticism. She is curious about the domestic and mundane; she takes a microscope, peels back the skin and probes, down to the bones, the sinews, the very atoms.”
I hadn’t noticed that, I hadn’t looked. But yes, it seems that the author who interests me the most is one who writes in the way I aspire to. She rejects the exotic and examines the everyday. Her truth shines and resonates. I wonder if that’s true for all my favourite authors, and suspect there it is: the uniting thread between Plath, Galloway, Lorrie Moore, Ali Smith, A.L Kennedy, Bukowski, Dave Eggers, Douglas Coupland.
There is a wonderful quote from Lorrie Moore in response to being asked about a story “which seemed to straddle the line between fiction and nonfiction.”
“No, it didn't straddle a line. It was fiction. It is autobiographical, but it's not straddling a line. Things did not happen exactly that way; I re-imagined everything. And that's what fiction does. Fiction can come from real-life events and still be fiction. It can still have that connection, that germ. It came from something that happened to you. That doesn't mean it's straddling a line between nonfiction and fiction. And the whole narrative strategy is obviously fictional. It's not a nonfiction narrative strategy.”
Brilliant. (You can read the whole interview here.) I love how she sounds kinda testy and absolutely sure of herself.
Anyway, like I say, I'm still mulling. I'm not saying that you shouldn't write whatever you feel compelled to, but I think we all strive for a unique voice, and mine sounds a lot like me.