One of the most often asked and most annoying questions for writers is ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ My answer depends on the circumstances. If the questioner is, say, a talented twelve-year-old, I explain how everyday experiences can provide fodder for the writer’s imagination, and how the more widely a person reads, the bigger the worlds that open up within his or her mind. But if the question comes from an ill-informed adult, the kind who tells me she may write a book some day when she has the time, I simply reply that I get my ideas from real life. If the person is puzzled as to the relevance of my real life to, say, a magical version of medieval Ireland, so be it. If I told this person that human behaviour transcends boundaries of time, space and culture, and that the biggest themes are universal, I’d probably get the response, ‘Yeah, right.’
I’ve had some professional self-doubt recently, partly thanks to reading a Review From Hell. This reminded me that a WU contributor, in response to a post from me last year, suggested I should consider writing a memoir about my cancer experience. I remember my sharp mental recoil when this entirely reasonable idea was put forward. I know real life provides the raw material for a writer’s creativity. I understand that such an account might be helpful to other women. And in fact I made notes while I was sick, especially in the earlier part of the year when I hadn’t been knocked flat by the treatment. I was able to blog about it; I had made my diagnosis public fairly quickly, so there were no secrets. But when I thought about a book-length work based directly on my personal experience I encountered a mental barrier. It was big, solid, and hung with KEEP OUT notices.
I have many such walls. Behind them are times when I’ve been less than proud of myself, times when I’ve failed to stand up for myself or for others; times when I’ve been hurt, ridiculed or put down (that review is rearing its ugly head again.) Those times can be painfully hard to bring into the light, even deconstructed and spread around in works of fiction. Most of that stuff I don’t even share with my friends, let alone with a broad readership. I have been wondering if that makes me less honest than I should be as a writer. After all, the more real the emotion behind the telling – anger, guilt, passion, frustration, envy, grief – the more powerful (and the more emotionally true) the story that arises from it.
I admire those who can grapple with the catastrophes of their real lives and transform them into works that enlighten us, whether in the form of short story, novel, memoir or autobiography. To do so is to move towards dealing with unresolved grief or anger, and perhaps to help some readers do the same. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking is one example, and I’m sure you have plenty more.
Looking back over my novels, I can see that the dark stuff does creep through those walls. I was intrigued when several interviewers picked up on this in Heart’s Blood, asking me to what extent Caitrin’s personal journey was based on my own experience. Factually most of it wasn’t; emotionally much of it was. I was happy with the question, because it meant Caitrin came across as a real person rather than as a character. If my writing expresses emotional truths, that satisfies me, and I know from my readers that my fiction has often succeeded in illuminating other people’s dark places. But writing my real life story? I don’t think so.
How close to the bone is your writing? Would you be prepared to lay your past bare in the interests of emotional honesty / a great story? Or is there a line you would not cross?