Readers of my posts here have perhaps heard me complain about this before—the assumption that every book that I write is somehow based on some personal experience. I’ve never understood why this is so often the assumption of writers of a certain kind of fiction (I say a certain kind because, surely, Stephen King does not get asked whether he actually had a possessed car, or travelled through a wormhole to try to stop the Kennedy assassination). Is it because people don’t think writers of commercial/contemporary or literary fiction have an imagination? Is it because many people’s first novels are, at least in part, semi-autobiographical? Is it because of that old trope: write what you know?
I have built some defense mechanisms to this question over the years. If my books were all really about me, I tell people who ask now, then I would have had a pretty interesting life: a stint in rehab to get the inside scoop on a celebrity, followed by an arranged marriage, then getting lost in Africa for six months and having everyone assume I was dead, then an affair with a married man and finally a stint as a wildland firefight/arson investigator in a small town in the Rockies. I get tired just making that list!
But really, perhaps the better question is: why does it bother me that people make that assumption? Of course there is something of me in each of my books. My experiences, my opinions, my voice as a writer are all in there. My name is on the cover, for goodness sake. So why, why does it bug me?
I am a private person. I am married to an even more private person. And being an artist these days—any kind of artist—means cracking open at least part of your life and putting it out there via social media. Look what I ate today for lunch! Look where I went paddle-boarding! Looking at this silly sign I found. Here’s what I think about this year’s election. I participate in all of this—partly because I feel that I have to—but it does leave one feeling exposed. And writing is an exposure of a different sort. It is cracking ones emotions open and infusing them on the page. Characters feel real in fiction because they are infused with the time the writer puts into them. They live with us, beside us, in our heads, and sometimes seem more real than the people we are standing next to. And then we hit Send and let them go out into the world.
If I admitted, if I confirmed, that this event, or that, this turn of phrase or thought, was precisely what I thought and felt at a specific moment in time, then what would I be admitting about myself? What would people know about me? And would that increase or decrease the enjoyment of the reader?
I myself prefer the mystery. When I know too much about a writer—Jonathan Franzen, say—it infects the work. A book should stand on its own, outside the author. If it is any good, it should be enjoyed regardless of the name on the cover. Shouldn’t it?
I am not sure if I am trying to convince you, or myself. But there is this: [Read more…]