writers are robbers and miners

The novel I’m reading, which is at the top of the literary buzz list, was written by someone I went to college with way back when, Jeffrey Eugenides.

Reading his novel The Marriage Plot has been at once delightful and surprisingly odd, because parts of it are like a cipher key to that time, that place when I was twenty and the world was before me. It has been almost like reading someone’s journal that you’ve snuck from under their pillow, and coming across passages about you. No, of course it’s not me there wandering through the streets of Providence or along the edges of the creamy page (albeit digitized), but within this fictional work there are triggers which make the memories fire in my head of people, of places, of emotions, whether justifiably or not. It’s as if I were lying on the leather couch following the pocket watch swaying before my eyes, go back, go back.

Whether due to a dreadful memory (a curse as well as a blessing, and one I’ve had forever) or just a reticence to go backwards, I don’t often. Just today via a friend’s blog post I read yet another jewel by Dominique Browning on how she burned her old diaries. I basically did the same, although mine had a far less romantic end, my pages of angst and joys, loves and longings tossed out in the trash long ago. Ms. Browning is known for writing from the heart, and pretty much everything she writes (which is often achingly lovely and moving) is drawn from her life, yet as she so eloquently puts it…

I write memoirs. And I write about my life in a blog. But as I’m constantly saying to people who wonder how I can reveal so much about myself (especially as, at heart, I am a shy person), I’m not publishing my diaries. I’m not revealing so very much, when I write, that isn’t in all of us. It is kind of like the old saw about having it all. Readers never get it all. They get some of all of it. Everything I write is true. But I don’t write about everything true. I shape, I cut, I feint and dodge; I want to get to something that is uniquely mine, and at the same time ours, too.

Writers (and all of us, really) are shapers and cutters, robbers and miners. They chip away at their own experiences, polishing the rough rocks to find the elusive diamonds. They make pigments of their memories and dab them onto their palettes, blending the real with the imaginary in endless combinations to create their characters and their lives. If you have any friends who are writers, keep that in mind as you ramble on before them, spilling out the intimate and mundane details of your life, for you may well revisit these later on page 529. It has happened to me, three times, and in none of those cases was I consulted or forewarned, just coming across the passages in their fiction. Robbery of a benign sort.

We live, we speak, we act and all of that can affect others who can then take this and make it their own, expressing it in a myriad of ways (gossip is one of them, creative expression perhaps the preferable one.) This brings to mind David Shields’ “Reality Hunger,” in which he said “What actually happened is only raw material; what the writer makes of what happened is all that matters.”

Soon there will be a class reunion (I won’t be attending, despite the go back go back), and today someone on the class web page wrote, tired of the vague speculation on the roots of Eugenides book, “I’m naming names…” And he did. Two of them, one precisely the person I had in mind for one of the characters. But in doing so he violated some unspoken law of fiction (which maybe I’ve made up just now): he took a work of fiction and put it in the realm of mundanity, attempting to strip it from its magic. If anyone should name names (and I don’t think they should), it should be the author, and if he does I may well plug my ears.

Perhaps I fear that if I ever do publish I’ll have people speculating on my references, dredging up people and moments from my past as if they’ve resurrected my journals from the trash. Or maybe it’s just that I prefer to read the book before seeing the movie (literally as well as figuratively), to let the words and the characters exist on a plane elevated somehow, sacred.

But that’s just me...


12 thoughts on “writers are robbers and miners

  1. How did you feel after reading page 529? I can only assume that there is a mixture of emotions.

    I, too, burned my diaries…or at least most of them. Afterwards one of my daughters became quite upset. She had hoped to ask for those when I died. But I didn’t want anyone to go back in time and think that is how I felt at the end of my life. A person changes and gets through things. The anger and the discontent softens hopefully over a piece of time.

    A friend of mine wrote a wonderful short story about an island community. Initially everyone was up in arms because it was fairly obvious (or at least the posh little sea town thought it was obvious) who the author was referring to. Then, they became quite proud of it, even though the author did not portray them in a particularly favorable light. Funny what fame does to people. Great post! Wish you were going back to the reunion. Good fodder for writing.

    1. Ha! Well my page 529 in one case was actually very sweet, a story from my childhood I’d told the author which held a lot of meaning for me, and for him as well, it seems. The other page 529’s were none too flattering, but they were about events I witnessed. Actually that was worse because I felt terrible knowing that if my friends read the book (fortunately I don’t think they ever would) they would have been horrified and it might have meant the end of our friendship.

      I love the story of the island people horrified by fame (infamy?) and then rather growing to like it. Indeed fame (and rubbing up against it) is a strange beast. As for the reunion, wasn’t it you who posted relatively recently about your reunion?

  2. Tracy. Nice post. I too have this problem. The protagonist in one of my novels has a real-life prototype, a woman I knew. The novel is not published yet, but when it is, I wanted to dedicate it to her. Without her stories and her life, it would be a very different novel. I wonder if I should ask for her permission?
    Anyway, an enjoyable and thoughtful post.
    Can I make an observation? I wanted to address you by your name in my comment but couldn’t find it anywhere on your blog. I had to go back to She Writes to get it. Perhaps you should put your name somewhere on the title or subtitle, so people would know at the first glance whose blog they’re reading. At least the first name.

    1. Hmm I guess letting someone know and asking permission are quite different. Knowing me I’d ask permission, or at least let the person know my intention in advance of publication. That said, there are many who would say that once we feel we have to ask permission it’s a slippery slope. Such an interesting topic which affect anyone who puts their creative work out there, not just writers, but musicians, artists, etc. etc.

  3. Hi Tracey,
    We authors are told to write write what we know, so it’s not surprising that we draw from our own experiences in writing fiction. My debut novel, “Husbands May Come and Go but Friends are Forever,” is about a group of women in their late 50s who first met in high school. I, too, have been blessed with such a group. While the characters are fictional, some of my friends insist they can see themselves, which luckily has turned out to be a good thing, especially now that the book has been optioned for the big screen.

    If we write what we know, real life is bound to slip into our work. Just don’t piss anybody off!

    1. Yes, and I suppose sometimes we just can’t avoid making people angry, it’s unavoidable, and sometimes not even warranted (see Annie’s comment!). As for letting people know, I think there are times when yes, it would be the right thing to do to let them know prior to the book’s publication. In one of the cases where my words were used, my name was too (first and last), so it would have been nice to have known. It’s a tough question, for if we were all so restrained we would never be able to move, let alone create. I think in your gut you know if you’ve used someone’s character, etc. with creative license, as opposed to purposefully trying to malign them, which would be wrong in a moral sense.

  4. It would feel like my painting had graffiti sprayed over it if someone were to name names or places or point out identifying details I’d purposely left out. People who are wont to do such a thing probably wish they could write. Ha!

    There’s a 30 Something episode in which a character takes a creative writing class. He writes a love scene in which a wristwatch is broken against the headboard. His lover recognizes herself in the story and feels violated. Years later, at a poetry slam I attended, the winning poem opened with the lines, “I’m not your girlfriend, I’m your material!” In such cases, I feel more sympathetic toward the writer. Because, as you said, “we make it our own,” and as Dominique Browning put it, “Readers never get it all.”

    I’ve had a former friend object to a mutual friend that I had referred to his disloyalty in my blog. When the latter talked to me about it, I made it clear that my personal blog is mine, and no one gets to tell me what I write. “If he feels uncomfortable, stop reading!” To date he has not unsubscribed.

  5. I think it’s probably best for writers to live by the Grace Hopper adage: “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission.” I heard a writer once say that at least six women thought the protagonist in his novel was them; three were angry, three were ecstatic, all were wrong. Of course we write from life. Of course, we want readers to identify WITH our characters, not necessarily to identify them. Great post. Fortunately, I was never able to keep up a diary, so I don’t need to decide whether or not to burn. Still, I must say that I have enjoyed reading the diaries of writers and/or letters of authors I have loved.

    1. I love that 3-3-0 anecdote! I too love reading diaries, especially the ones written written without any thoughts of their publication (which in the case of those whose fame was prior to their deaths, highly suspect anyway).

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