Friday, June 06, 2008

fictionalizing your life

Maud Newton put forth some thoughts about how much of your life it's ok to fictionalize, and how getting stuff our of your system can be "uncomfortably revealing."

I'm inclined to agree, and then some. As far as blogging is nonfiction writing, I have no problem confessing long, well, novel-like posts. But somehow whenever I take a crack at fiction and, necessarily, find myself incorporating hard experience, I can't help but feel accountable for everything each of my characters says and does. I can only write well about things I know backward and forward, but often these are the things it is hardest to commit to paper.

Thoughts, from writers?

Furthermore. When I write real experience, I fictionalize. This is what I MIGHT have said and done instead, or this is what someone ELSE might have said or done, for example. Will people who read anything I write (you know, my highly optimistic imaginary audience) assume that all these elements are autobiographical? WILL I be held accountable?! Will I have to hash and rehash these almost-experiences again and again for the rest of my life? And if I will, will it be worth it?

Someone famous once said something akin to this (first person who can remind me who the quotee is, and perhaps what the exact quotation is, gets a big virtual smooch): Publishing a novel is like carefully packing a suitcase for a long trip with all your valuables in perfect meticulous order, and then leaving said suitcase in the middle of a busy street and walking away.

Thoughts, from readers?


Anonymous said...

"I can't help but feel accountable for everything each of my characters says and does. I can only write well about things I know backward and forward, but often these are the things it is hardest to commit to paper."

I think that writing doesn't require you to know your subject inside and out. It does require one to know the areas of plausibility/implausability for an audience. So I can write a story about a neurosurgeon with some research, but would never expect a group of neurosurgeons to think I knew what the heck I was talking about.


Conduit said...

Some minor characters in my novel will recognise themselves if they ever read it. When I bagged my agent, it suddenly occured to me that they actually MIGHT read it, seeing as the chances of it being published had just greatly increased. In my last revision I had to look very carefully at everything they said and did, and a lot of it got changed. There are still one or two things that could come back and bite me, but we'll have to wait and see.

I've come to think the old adage "write what you know" applies more to what you know emotionally than what you know in the real day-to-day world. Using Writtenwyrd's neurosurgeon analogy, we can research the instruments and procedures well enough to write convincingly about the mechanics of it, but we need to "know" what the nervous energy before performing surgery feels like, the adrenal rush, the intense concentration, the joy of accomplishment - we "know" these things from elsewhere in life, so we must draw on them to, indeed, "write what you know".

Kalynne Pudner said...

What a great quote! And while I don't know the author, I'd be willing to place a very high-stakes bet that it's a woman.

Kalynne Pudner said...

In re Conduit's first paragraph: When a teenage friend of my son's asked to read my ms, I felt compelled to write a large disclaimer, in red, on the cover: "YOU are NOT JORDAN." And the first few times he appeared in the text, I wrote in the margin: "NOT YOU." (Jordan is the teenaged obsession of the middle-aged female MC...which is not something I know, either emotionally or in the real world.)

I wasn't really so concerned that he'd mistakenly recognize himself, as much as that his parents would find it and mistakenly recognize him. Since handing it over, I've been more concerned that it looks like I protesteth too much.

So, yeah, I guess I do feel accountable for my characters.

Shanna Swendson said...

I have found that no matter how far from reality a book is, people will assume that there's an autobiographical component. Even in a book that involves enchanted frogs and talking gargoyles, they think the book is somehow about my life. I used to avoid giving my main characters any obvious traits in common with me to try to avoid being mistaken for my characters, but I've decided that's kind of pointless since they're going to assume it's about me, anyway.

But I think that a lot of what I write does come from my life -- I take a lot of things I've experienced or felt, take them apart, stick some new things in, and put them back together again in a different way. After all, the only person I know from the inside out is myself.

Charles Gramlich said...

I think fiction allows me to say many, many autobiographical things that I'd never say in non-fiction.

Colorado Writer said...

Interesting. Sometimes for me the line blurs between telling a story and telling my truth.

writtenwyrdd said...

"sometimes the line blurs between telling my story and telling my truth."

Indeed. And like Charles mentions, writing does allow one to write one's truths. The thing is, even if your truth is voiced by a talking frog, it's a truth. It's not necessarily autobiographical, however; we indulge in hopeful wishing and revisions via what ifs all the time.

Sherri said...

I have a pretty vividly-drawn line between my truth and my fiction, most of the time. For example, I never embellish on my blog. Ever.

And while there is no fiction in my truth, there is a little truth in my fiction. However, those truths are simply building blocks, and once they're put together they don't resemble the truth at all.

As Shanna said, I'm the only person I know inside and out. I have to use my true experiences, to some degree.

JES said...

Sheesh. Go out of town for a few days and EdAss refuses to go into hiatus :)...

One of the projects dearest to my heart, I used to bill as a "memoir." It's along the lines of Jean Shepherd's stuff (e.g. In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, the stories on which the movie "A Christmas Story" were based, and so on). I could safely bill it as a memoir because I wrote it just for my family, cranking it out over four years -- a new chapter each Christmas, as gifts -- and they'd recognize the true moments.

They'd also recognize the selectivity. And they'd recognize the exaggerations for comic effect. And they'd etc.

Now I'm stuck. Because now I'm thinking of shopping it around for "real" publication. And now, in the post-James Frey world, I don't know what to call it.

More directly to MR's questions: I think you're gonna have to let the chips -- and the packed suitcase -- fall where they will. Accountability for your characters words and actions, sure, absolutely -- but you don't "know backward and forward" only the things which you've actually heard spoken and seen happen.

Writtenwyrdd's plausibility-to-implausibility gauge -- that's perfect. I suspect when you read fiction, you don't assume it's fact. You allow that's how it might happen. And readers of your own work are probably going to give you that courtesy -- that leeway -- too.

JES said...

P.S. It's not very close to the wonderful "packing a suitcase/leaving it on a busy street" metaphor. But the closest I've been able to find is Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "Own only what you can carry with you; know language, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag."