The Serving of your Story Part 2: Authority
At the end of September - was it only a bit more than two weeks ago? - I posted this to my blog:
When you write, you don't write primarily from the mind, you write out of the love you feel for the people in your story, which means everything you write is meant to serve these people and does not exist to fulfil some intellectual goal of your own, such as getting published.
There were quite a few comments, and I thought a couple of them needed more space than the ridiculously few characters allowed in a comment. Here's the first one.
In the past, when I was writing creatively and not academically, I would always base my characters on my family members. I would take small problems or troubling characteristics/situations they had and turn them into a character-defining dimension.
Because I used real people to base my fiction on, I felt so very close to my creations because, while they are severely flawed or fragmented(both my characters and the members of my immediate and extended family)I love them all dearly. I may sometimes be conflicted in my feelings, but there is always love. Investing so much emotion into characters can be exhausting because it forces you to face the aspects of the real people your characters are based on, and it's not always pretty. Through this type of writing, I've found myself able to forgive my characters, who may emphasize a certain flaw more than the real person, and in this way, it can be so very cathartic when you look at the real life inspiration and see their smaller flaw in comparison.
I don't know if this makes much sense, but what I'm trying to articulate is that creative writing can be so very personal, so essential, and so entirely necessary that when you choose to put your work out there for publication only to have it shot down, it can be devastating. I haven't attempted publishing any of my creative writing, but I can surmise that if anyone were to reject my characters or their stories, it would seem like a slight against those dear to me. I want people to be able to forgive my characters the way I have.
Your comments about loving the characters in your stories are different from what I meant when I talked about loving and serving the characters and the story. I'm really glad you brought these points up, however, because you write so cleanly and without confusion that I understand what you are saying and I'm sure other people will understand it too. By asking it so clearly, I can, I hope, answer you in such a way that other people will gain their own answers too. I hope, too, that I will be able to provide you (and the rest of the people reading this) with some things to think about, and at least a hint at some of the answers you need.
WHY NOT USE PEOPLE YOU KNOW IN YOUR STORIES? WHY NOT JUST GIVE THEM NEW NAMES AND USE THEM? EVERYONE HAS TROUBLE WITH THEIR FAMILIES. WHY NOT WRITE FROM THE FIRST PERSON AND JUST CHANGE THE NAME OTHER PEOPLE CALL YOU BY IN THE STORY? WHY NOT WRITE A STORY ABOUT THE FAMILY AND THE TROUBLE YOU'VE HAD WITH THEM -- AND KILL FOUR BIRDS WITH ONE STONE? (four birds: tell you later.) These are questions that have come up so many, many times in writing workshops that you needn't feel you've asked something that other people instinctively know. Virtually no writer I know has ever expressed to me the answers to the above questions, though all the writers I know and respect do NOT use people they know as characters, and do NOT use their own problems, and do NOT write as if they are the main character.
One problem is that you know your own family. You learn even more about your own family as you write about them. It makes you uncomfortable, exhausted even. You add more of the character flaws to the people you love because that is what the story is about, and you get even more exhausted. Eventually, through writing creatively about them, you come to some kind of resolution that allows you, Quenby, to understand and forgive your own flesh and blood.
But what has this to do with other peoples' flesh and blood? This is what has you in a turmoil, Quenby. Unless you have the freedom to create, to change characters in a major way from the way you believe 100% that they are in your own real life, it is very difficult to make those characters connect to other peoples' flesh and blood. I know you won't quite believe that. You'll say, "But I have a friend whose parents did that to her." And I'll say truthfully, "That's sad. Was it exactly that, what they did to your friend? And do you know why they did it? Was it for the very same reason as your parents did what they did to you?"
Now in saying this, I'm not really writing about your parents, Quenby. I don't even know your parents. I don't know your friend, or your friend's parents. I don't know what the problem is that your "parents" did to "you" and that you are "writing out". My connections to everything here are only as true as you can make them be for me.
"Well I'll just write more about them, and then you'll know," you might say.
"Maybe I don't really believe that you are remembering with 100% truth everything you've already written," one of your readers might say, who will perhaps have just seen or will have seen early on through the "fictional" first person narrator to know it's really you, the author. You would have entered your own story somehow, and the reader would have seen it.
How? I believe it has to do with AUTHORITY.
An author has authority because s/he knows 100% of what happened in the story and why. S/he has notes. S/he has what s/he has already written. S/he has friends to tell him or her, after reading something, "Hey man, why didn't your main character just go live with his best friend?" To an author, that would be an option, one that would be carefully considered, and even (okay, I'm not as crazy as this sounds :}) would kind of been talked over with the character, to see if it's something the character would choose to do under these circumstances. But a writer who is writing a story based on coloured fact, would simply say, "He didn't, that's all."
And now we are into the first place where fact is different from fiction. Your life seen through your eyes, is very different than your life seen through your family's eyes. Truth is somewhere in there. Some things are true, some are only true in your eyes, some are never true. I know this. I have a daughter. She remembers some things one way. I remember those episodes quite differently. The truth is in there somewhere, but it's not for sure 100% accurate in my mind and it's not for sure 100% accurate in my daughter's mind. Neither of us are liars. Nor are you, Quenby. All this problem with truth happens because no one really knows the whole truth of a real life story the way a writer of fiction knows the whole truth of a fictional story.
Memory colours events. We just had a guest for the weekend. This is a fact. A story came up about a thing that happened 25 years ago. The two guys were going to do a musical gig on radio. One of them remembers (or so I was re-told this morning) that he had to keep using the bathroom. The other of them remembers that neither of them ever even left the car because a panic attack was going on. Today, having heard the story, last night, I remembered our guest saying he'd gotten locked in the bathroom. I also remember the panic attack story. There's truth in what I remember. But what part of my memory is the exact truth? Can I even be 100% sure that the one that remembers the panic attack in the parked car remembers it 100% accurately?
You are right to say you can't easily "expose" your stories to a critic's gaze. You didn't say this, but I know that part of the reason you are uncomfortable and exhausted at the thought is that you are stifled by the reality that your parents/siblings/cousins/etc. will read your story no matter how you try to hide its publication from them, and know what you think of them, or thought of them, before you wrote your way to understanding and forgiving them. You know very well they don't see themselves the way you do. That they never thought of themselves the way you did. Worse, in making them a bit "worse" or "different" for the sake of the conflict you're writing this story around, they will see the exaggeration and nothing else you could ever say will bring them back to you with love. They don't care if you forgive them in the end of the story, because they don't realize what on earth made you think they needed forgiveness in the first place. Therefore, what is true for you isn't true for them.
Kill four birds with one stone: your family's sense of itself, yourself in relationship to them in your mind once you've "written it out" and seen how much less bad they are than you had thought, yourself in relationship to them once they read the story, and -- the story itself. You'll kill it for sure, because you won't have served all the characters in it with the kind of love that lets them be what they are.
A fiction writer would let them be what they are, even mean. By letting them be that way, the fiction writer (a very good one, anyway) would come to understand why they are that way. Remember Margaret Laurence's novel The Stone Angel? Remember that dreadful female main character? Did you love her at the end? I did. I cried for her. But a writer can't make that happen for a reader unless s/he has the freedom to allow the characters to slowly explain, through the things they do, 100% of why they are the way they are. In the end, then, the author will know 100% about everyone and everything in the story. It won't be a question of what's right and what's wrong, or who remembers what. In writing about your family, Quenby, you would always be constrained by the fact that they can't be evil, they can't even do real evil, because you love them.
Write with authority. Write fiction.
Make it up, and make it seem real.
Keep on writing your excellent slice-of-life from your point-of-view diaristic but resolved stories, if you want to. And then hide them until everyone who could ever be hurt by them is dead.
But don't limit yourself like this, Quenby. Hang loose, free yourself from reality, and then sit down at the computer and INVENT.