Monday, February 11, 2008

Write What You Know?

I came across this article yesterday. It’s about a man who discovers that his father had been the inspiration for several characters in Margaret Atwood’s early novels. I read the article with much interest and amusement, but something nagged at me.

This morning it hit me that this is precisely the sort of thing that makes non-writers think every blessed thing we write has a direct correlation to some person or event in our real lives. Friends, family and acquaintances read articles like this and start picking apart our fiction with the zeal of a linguist encountering the Rosetta Stone for the first time.

It’s so irritating I could spit.

I confess that my first-ever novel drew heavily on people and events of my own life. It was about 90% autobiographical. It was also pure and utter crap, which is why it’s a trunk novel and will never see the light of day. My second novel had two characters based on real life acquaintances and other than that was pure fiction. I haven’t used a real life person or event in my fiction since then.

Oh sure, I use composites and archetypes. Obnoxious, sex-obsessed Boeing from Bella Diana and my Will and Diana stories is a familiar type to any female past the age of puberty. I can name half a dozen guys who are like him and yet I didn’t have any of them in mind when I created him. And where on earth would I have come up with someone like Coyote, who hears voices and loves trains so much he feels compelled to destroy them? Real life? Please.

Unfortunately, as long as famous novelists like Margaret Atwood are on record as using their personal experiences and former lovers in their fiction, folks like me who channel characters out of the non-autobiographical ether will never be believed. Our protestations of true creativity will be treated with condescension, as if we're hiding dark secrets or engaging in false modesty.

And that, Gentle Reader, is why I don’t share my writing with my family. If I did, they’d tear it apart, searching for themselves when they aren’t anywhere in it. They would think I have all kinds of scary and wacky friends with tortured pasts and questionable morals. They would think I had first-hand experience with people and situations that I hope to never encounter in my real life.

What they would end up thinking about me as a person I don’t even want to know.


Anonymous said...

Oh, how well I hear you, Bunnygirl. It floors me, the assumptions made by (a few) members of my family, based on my fiction... and my cat blogs, of all things. I just keep on keepin' on and try not to worry about what they think. It's their problem, not mine. But it does make me wish I'd never shared certain things with them.

For the most part, my mom doesn't read my fiction, but there was one short story she read some years back, and you would have thought she was a Grand Inquisitor with all the questions she asked: "Why did you write this, why did you write that? Why was your main character the way she was? Why, why, why..."

Aspects of my characters or stories are drawn from real life, but not always. And I never take a person or situation from life and place him/her/it, verbatim, into my fiction.

And don't even get me started on the critique partner who went bats on me because he loathed a character of mine and decided I must be loathsome, too... and this from a fellow writer!

Seems to me there are lots of folks who don't quite understand what fiction means.

*whew*, thanks for letting me vent -- I can't do this on my blog; too many family members read there!

pacatrue said...

Yeah, I could have just pointed over here and said "what she said" instead of writing my own post. :) My characters are very similar to what you describe. Of course, they are based on real life in a sense, but they are a grabbag of people and possible people, not one person in particular. In a sense, I think my friends and family are in stuff I write, but only in the vague sense that people think that parents are most often like their own parents whether or not that's true. Or, since I like witty banter with real friends, I often try to put witty banter into something I write. But it's not as if I'm writing down our conversations.

WriterKat said...

Good topic!

That does get annoying I imagine. To date, I've been writing mostly kid lit, so I haven't had that issue, but right now, I'm working on an autobiographical piece about my work experiences. But since it is so close to home, I'm debating whether to fictionalize it to create a little distance.

I don't tell most people that I'm writing because people want to know if I have a publisher, etc. The other big response is, "Can I illustrate it?" I hardly tell anyone I write, usually just other writers I meet in Starbucks or blog land.

My other irritant is people saying, "Well I would write too if I had the time." As if time is the only thing keeping them. Sorry, but we're all short on time.

Writing is some big mystery that people don't quite get. (Okay now, did I go off topic? Sorry!)

Arachne Jericho said...

Ah, see, that's why I don't have family. *g*

And write under a different name.

WriterKat said...

I went back and read that article. What an amazing story. It almost seems like there could be a book about that story - finding your father in another's book. Although, that would further the problem you're discussing.. so maybe not. ;-)

Gloria, Writer Reading said...

I had a friend whose first novel had a father with characteristics that were all exactly the opposite of her own father. He still thought it was him. On the other hand, I had another famous writer as a teacher who said all her work drew on autobiography. I think there is a huge range. A close friend's father met with Phillip Roth and was included mockingly as a character in one of his books. My friend was livid. But I say fiction is fiction and using that term is a license to draw on whatever the heck you want for inspiration. Memoir is another story, as I noted on a recent post about memoir fraud.

Alice Audrey said...

I know the feeling. The further I get from any people I actually know, the more often my readers tell me the story seems real.