Wednesday, January 02, 2013

"The first piece you write that your family hates means you found your voice, I warn my classes. If you want to be popular with your parents and siblings, try cookbooks."

While Literature used to mean subtly alluding to anything racy, we're now in the age of Real Housewives on toilets, of Lifetime Movie fiction, but most of all, of the overshare. Rather than channeling our observations of humanity into novels or short stories, we're now expected to tell the truth, the whole truth, with bonus courage points for any loved ones we take down along the way. (See also Susan Shapiro's interventions in the comments to her essay. The personal is the personal.)

And I think that's a shame. There are so many advantages to telling "your" story - the one, or ones, only you could tell - through a genre that doesn't promise truth. Fiction of course varies tremendously in terms of how closely it mirrors lived experience. But once you've labeled a document "fiction," the premise changes. Maybe these are the author's experiences and grievances, or maybe the author heard/read about something like this, or maybe it's pure invention (as much as such a thing is possible). I have trouble articulating exactly why fiction is the way to go, but my impression is that it's the route to bigger truths than the ones you can arrive at trying to adhere to your own precise experiences.

This is an issue I've been thinking about for some time. Even in high school, when "creative-writing" class brings about what are clearly individual's own life situations verbatim, whatever the characters are called, I was never able to write "fiction" about myself. Part of it was that doing so led to the obvious writing trap of, there are all these details I would know, and would assume a reader would as well, but how on earth could anyone other than me know what I was talking about? (To give a theoretical example not from my own life: say your protagonist's parents had a bitter divorce, which you take for granted because you are the protagonist, but which could well be information the reader needs but lacks.) Inventing characters forces you to paint the full picture, to tell as much as is necessary. It also just didn't seem interesting - I know that my own life interests me insofar as I'm experiencing it, a likely universal human experience, one that makes all of us biased when telling our own stories. Point being, even apart from whichever ethical qualms keep me from going the dirty-laundry route, I'd also find it more difficult to write about my own personal life, in a way that could possibly be of interest to anyone other than myself.

And yet, this blog. Sometimes I worry that all this blogging - first-person, but not confessional - has damaged my capacity to write fiction. Blogging, but also Facebook, an online presence in general. I know, a huge loss for world literature, but bear with me. Like every other literature grad student since forever, I'm always starting a novel, conceiving of pieces of one. But I fear that I've become so accustomed to writing only from my own perspective, to presenting myself, to adhering to the truth, to keeping everything safe for an audience I can only assume includes the full gamut of family, social, and professional connections, that I'd be incapable of shutting the self-censoring impulse. Even when talking about made-up situations and characters. Because fiction or not, it still comes from my brain, my keyboard. Because I'm so used to thinking of my writing-voice as me, it seems scandalous to write about a character thinking/doing something that isn't something I would admit to thinking/doing (whether or not I have!) on-blog. And I don't even necessarily mean scandalous topics. I mean anything that would cross the line.


Miss Self-Important said...

I think the last time we talked about this problem, from which I suffer as well, you suggested that FB oversharing on the part of others is a possible way to come up with characters for potential writers who have a hard time imagining the inner lives of people who are not themselves. Since people on FB spill their guts for anyone willing to examine, they are potential character fodder w/o necessarily being identifiable individuals (unless the gut-spiller you pick to fictionalize is your mother, which seems unlikely). I've always thought that was a very good suggestion.

But I don't think that having such constraints as, "I don't want to humiliate everyone I know" really impedes good fiction (although I guess Saul Bellow would disagree). Constraints call up subtlety and finesse. You have to self-censor no matter what, at the very least for brevity's sake, since you can't possibly write every moment of your life, so some principle of selection must determine what goes in and why. If your principle of selection is that you want to reveal precisely all the mundane things that other writers have chosen to excise, like time spent sitting on the toilet, then you also have to show why these activities are more compelling than we assume, which will almost necessarily require fiction, since they're otherwise...not. But most literature was written under far more extensive restriction than a disinclination to humiliate one's parents in print, so I doubt that the specter of censorship, self-imposed or otherwise, is the real enemy of good writing.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Thanks for reminding me of my earlier idea - that remains potentially useful. Keep spilling, folks!

As for self-censorship, I want to agree, but I'm not sure I can. Take the example of pot - let's say your parents have a real thing about how evil it is, and that your mother is one of those people commenting on the "Well" blog about how her children never touched the stuff, because she and her husband raised 'em right. Let's say you're an adult, and you write a novel that reveals some familiarity with the stuff. This doesn't necessarily mean you've tried it or even been in the vicinity of it (although if you're from certain locales, at least, this would mean you'd never walked down the street), but your parents may well read your novel and be stunned to learn that you've been lying to them all those years.

Or: say a novelist gave his spouse the impression that he was a virgin when they met, and had never had any other relationships. What will the spouse think if the novel contains true-to-life descriptions of romantic relationships - not porn sex, not rom-com - that they've never had? Sure, this could be imagination, or borrowed from other novels. But what if it just reads as a bit too realistic?

I guess what I'm thinking is, it's not just toilet-activities or the truly dull that one would feel the need to self-censor about. Entire plots - legitimate, literary, non-exploitative plots - could be ruled out. Not because they humiliate-as-in-libel relatives, or because they do in fact reveal embarrassing truths about the author of what is, after all, a work of fiction. Humiliation is subjective, and every family has its own peculiar rules which, if broken, would cause a stir. And everyone in each family has a certain role, set from childhood in the case of the younger generation - a novelist who even just broke from the expected role could cause quite a stir, even with a novel that, to an audience of strangers, wouldn't seem at all controversial.

Miss Self-Important said...

Well, doesn't that weigh even more strongly in favor of fiction over memoir? Surely it's possible to research the details of marijuana use or imagine a romance you did not have, and unless your family is against the very idea of your writing fiction, they probably have to accept that you will include some fictionalizations in your fiction. I don't see this being a major limitation on much of anyone living in America in the present, except maybe the Amish, who can't use the excuse that they just read about cars on the internet without actually driving them. Even if your family is really uptight and wants to believe you don't know ANYTHING seedy or scandalous, and you want to maintain that illusion for them, you can still write all of Jane Austen's novels w/o crossing the line, so maybe if you look at it from that perspective, self-censorship won't seem so limiting.

Or, you can be esoteric.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

All good points. And yes, this is all a case for fiction. Storytelling shouldn't have to say whether the author did or did not have X experience. If nothing else, speculation's more fun.

Your comment has also me think how to better put what it is I'm trying to express. It's not that parents generally, let alone my parents, are all Amish. It's that once one is so accustomed to one's own public voice as a writer/blogger being first-person non-fiction, it starts to seem as if whatever one writes, unless there's some radically different narrator, setting, etc., will come across as that same voice engaging in tell-all.

But the bigger issue, esp. in the stage when it's unclear if one will ever have, you know, readers, is what we'd discussed before - the difficulty of turning off the blogging switch, telling the properly edited version of one's own life. Although I do think it matters that even if all writing needs self-editing, the self-editing is different if it's aimed at telling the truth/not scandalizing parents-and-bosses, than if it's writing good fiction. Even though, as it's clear we agree, good fiction doesn't need to include anything that would scandalize.

caryatis said...

I understand the problem of not being able to stop writing about oneself. If you’re like me, right now you are the only person in your head, so when you attempt to write about a fictional character’s life or actions or reactions, what naturally comes out is your life, actions and reactions, because there is no one you spend so much time experiencing as yourself. Your perception of others is much shallower. You might be able to imagine the reactions of another person you know very well, like your husband, but you don’t want to write about him either, I imagine.

The fiction writers I have know seem to have spent so much time writing and discussing and thinking about their main characters that those characters get into their heads. Almost more like a second personality than an acquaintance, I guess.

My boyfriend writes many, many more pages than he needs for a book, which helps him to round out the protagonist, get an idea of how he acts and what his history and life are like, even though much of it won’t end up in the finished book. He’ll ask me what I would do if hit men came into my doughnut shop, and talk about what he thinks his protagonist would do.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"I understand the problem of not being able to stop writing about oneself."

Heh - out of context, that would seem like a different but related problem - narcissistic graphomania.

"The fiction writers I have know seem to have spent so much time writing and discussing and thinking about their main characters that those characters get into their heads."

And, I think you've named the way out of the problem I've identified.

caryatis said...

Hope that helps.