If you’re interested, I’ll tell you that it’s my philosophy in writing that verb tense and 1st-, 2nd- and 3rd-person perspectives are tools for the author only. They should not be taken by the reader as a curriculum vitae, or as the outline for the author’s biography, or the biography of any person with whom the author is actually affiliated.
I understand that people read a book and wonder who the author was talking about…really. We all want to feel we’re in on some secret, that we have some insight into a creation that is seemingly outside our direct influence. People debate whether Howard Roark was written as Ayn Rand’s homage to Frank Lloyd Wright. How much of either Fear and Loathing… novels really happened? Well, James Ellroy wrote The Black Dahlia to highlight the LAPD’s failure to solve his own mother’s murder investigation, didn’t he?*
As a result, people sometimes read a book (pleasegod that people are still reading books) and think they know what /whom was on/in the author’s mind at the point of conception. And that’s totally cool, you know. We all do it sometimes. But it can prevent a reader from getting as much out of a novel as the author may have hoped. Preconceived notions are only useful for agents, marketers and the people who bet on the NY Times Best-Seller list.
It is the author’s task, I believe, to create a piece to which readers can relate on some level. Intellectual, spiritual, guttural, whatever. I believe this applies to fiction and non-fiction alike. To novels and to journalism. My job is to write something that makes you a participant of the work. Invested. Otherwise, why would you bother? Cinematically speaking, it’s the difference between covering your eyes because a movie has scenes that are too scary/violent/hysterically funny to watch and just getting up and walking out because you couldn’t care less what happens next. You’d rather be home wallpapering your toilet. And for authors like me who don’t have the skill set for science or historical fictions, who don’t do fantasy or romance…we have to stick closer to the here and now because that’s the stuff where we can write and be true.
That does not mean, however, that my books are about me. Or about my family. Or about anyone specifically that I know well. If I get to the point where I need to write those things, I’ll call it a biography or an autobiography and I’ll ask for folks to sign releases giving me permission to dump the laundry out in the yard, Swamp Meet-style.
I say that, but I can also acknowledge that there are definite similarities between personalities and circumstances in my books and in my life. Example: In The Farmer’s Story Marie was abused sexually. People who know me well know I, too, am a survivor of sexual abuse. But, the literal timing/location/perpetrator of the two abuse situations is quite different. I didn’t write about Marie’s situation because I was trying to prove a point about abuse, or demurely point fingers at my own abuser. I wasn’t trying to process or punish. There’s no half-hidden indictment in that book that’s leveled at anyone in particular. I wrote it because it wanted to be written. It developed in the course of me discovering those characters. I knew to avoid it because of “what people might think” would be a disservice to my writing process, and to whomever reads the novel. I’ve so wanted the opportunity to really focus on my writing…to really take this chance…. How could I do that disservice? Husband and I have certainly taken a tremendous risk here, I believe to chicken shit out of the difficult parts because of my own discomfort or fear of judgement would be an act of cowardice. And let us be honest. Too many people can relate in one way or another to what happened to Marie. Knowing that made any thoughts of taking the chicken route even less an option. Lots of hard stuff happens in that book, but my intention is that those events aren’t the end of it. The book is about how people deal with the hard stuff. I wonder what Marie decides to do in the long run? I wonder what action she takes? I haven’t looked lately because I’m focusing on the new novel, but I do believe she’ll rely on her support system now, instead of insisting she go it alone. I don’t think she could do that before. Not one bit. I’ve learned a thing or two from watching her story unfold.
I bring all of this up because the new novel is another example of things in a book that are similar to things from my life. In Standing With Buffalo there’s a family in distress because of a lost loved one. I’m writing it in the 1st person past tense, so it may seem like I’m at a pulpit, telling my story. But it’s not my story. A mom and dad and two sisters, living in the Midwest…making messes of things and trying to clean them up. It so happens that I also have a mom and dad and a sister, and we’ve long lived in the Midwest. The book opens with the father dying. It so happens my father is dead. Does that mean the mom and sister characters are doppelgängers for my mother and sister? No. It doesn’t mean that. It is not our story, we just have things in common with some of the characters. Art may imitate life, but it does not clone it. There will always be personalities and events in my books that are drawn from people/places I’ve known in life. You write what you know. But again, these are not recreations. I’m not re-writing history, or trying to tattle in hopes of casting my own past in a different light. I don’t believe my life is so unique that it’s worthy of retelling. To the contrary, I am quite aware that my own life has been pretty generic. That’s the thing that matters.
There are too many things that each of us share…too many things we all have in common to let the specifics prevent us from seeing an overall message. It’s the forest for the trees. It’s the poster store at the mall where you can’t look at the little images, but have to un-focus your eyes to see the big picture (“That’s not a schooner. It’s a sailboat!”). I’m not saying we lose our individuality because there are three-hundred-odd million of us on this little parcel of land alone, and it’s all a big beige world. I’m saying I’ve been learning our similarities ARE what make us unique. The things we share allow us to relate to one another, and to learn from one another. It’s all in the response. Individual responses to similar events…. I’ve altered my reactions to things from my past by seeing how another person in an almost identical situation responded with more foresight than I, and I’ve definitely seen folks handle the same set of circumstances in ways I hope to never repeat.
My mother and sister and I all lost the same man. But we responded in individual ways. The father in my book (Henry, if you’d like to start getting acquainted) leaves behind a wife and two daughters. Those women are not doing what we did, but I hope to learn from them as I continue to write their story. It’s fiction. It’s not biography. If I do my job right, and if I honor these people, you won’t be thinking about me or my family when you read it. You’ll be thinking about Henry and Ruth and their daughters. You’ll think about the last time you had your grandma’s biscuits and gravy and where you first learned to use an industrial dish washer. You’ll wish you could have gotten Henry’s apple pie recipe down before he up and died and took it to his grave. The people in my books know just about as well as everyone reading this blog right now that having to say “what if?” can suck, so best to not have to say it. We learn our own lessons from the things we share.
Similarities doesn’t mean replicas.
Art imitates life. It doesn’t clone it.
*My answers to these would be sort of, most of it, and not exactly. But…do the research and draw your own conclusions.