Question for writers: do you ever have trouble keeping yourself out of your stories? I do.
Keeping my Memoir out of my Fiction
Whenever I’m writing escapist fantasy, something happens that urges me to bring it back down to earth. My journal makes a compelling argument for its inclusion. My story relocates itself from a foreign land. It’s time frame travels back to the present. Memoir entries sneak into the margins. Mistaking them for notes, I find my private affairs on the page.
Overcome with a compulsion to method write, I draw from life experience. At the expense of the mystery, each line is a composite of my personality. Hoping no one has got my number, I hand my readers all the variables they’d need to do the math. Unrolling secret parchments, I leave them out for the uninitiated to see. Putting my shame up on a pedestal, I invite art authorities to criticize it.
I try to catch myself doing this. I try to spot the lines plagiarized from the other side of my mind, but they’re spaced out. It’s hard to drag the bottom of the text for corpses, the skeletons that once resided in my closet. It’s such a slow process, it’s no wonder my subconscious keeps getting away with it.
Exercising eminent domain, my internal city planner rezones my mental map. Putting my deepest fears in the town square, it gives the bad idea I’m trying to cast out of my mind the key to the city. Polluting my thoughts, it changes the skyline. Soon my enchanted kingdom resembles the streets I always walk down. The population resembles the people I see every day. Reality bleeds into my imagination. Now my dreamworld is no longer mine.
Real people show up for character auditions. Their dress code shows up in my descriptions. Personal ticks preface dialogue that I can’t help but quote verbatim. Sometimes I find myself wondering if I’m a writer or a stenographer.
I try to obscure their identities with accessories. They cast them off as inauthentic. No amount of armor can lock down their limps. No amount of flashy jewelry can bury their body language. No veil can mask their micro expressions. Glasses with plastic noses and mustaches will not spare me from paying likeness rights. The players want to be recognized on the page. I’m afraid that’s the only way I can get them out of my headspace.
The disclaimer will read: all characters appearing in this work are out there among you, any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely intentional. Names have been changed to protect the obvious.
May the class action lawsuit commence.
I’m a closed book until you read my writing. My drawbridge goes down, and I’m open to interpretation. There’s no artistic alibi, no neutral nuance, no subtle subtext to hide behind. All my deeper meanings float to the surface. All my subliminal messages go up in lights. All of my dramatic disguises get outed to the public.
Every quotation mark says something.
Every ellipsis is evidence.
Every full stop is a footprint.
Brail breadcrumbs will take you right up to my residence.
There are too many parallels to the path I walk. Too many telltale signs buried between the lines. Too many plot devices for you to reverse engineer. Too many transparent notions making my agenda clear. You know that I know, that you know, what I want you to know.
Casting myself as the lead is such a rookie mistake. It’s bush league. It’s a noob cheat. Making myself the main character is so first year author, so vanity press, so screenwriting 101, but here I go again.
It happens so gradually that I don’t catch myself doing it. I’m tailoring the hero’s garments to fit me better. I’m relocating them to a climate that resembles my own back yard. I’m limiting their knowledge base to something I can pull out of my own ass. Forgetting what color their irises are, I hit my own with the old eye-dropper tool. Forgetting how they style their hair, I give them the grown up Bart Simpson look that I always wear.
Suddenly my female lead has undergone a sex change. Now all the parts for women have been underwritten. Their nuance gets rounded off, and a set of troupes come to fill the spaces in. My once progressive premise shifts, it’s now part of the problem. My ego demands screen time, and all my great ideas for solving conflicts with words fall by the way side. The violence just keeps finding it’s way back into the script. I keep seeing myself making a fist. I need someplace to put it.
Before long, I’m looking back at myself from the text, in this paper mirror, wondering how the hell I even got there.
The hero speaks in catchphrases I never got the opportunity to use. They lift lines from tell-off speeches I’d never be brave enough to give. Their words strike a balance between cold and charming, with a whit so quick you’d never see it coming. They’re not me, they’re how I’d like to be. Even when they’re down and out, they do it elegantly.
It’s obvious why Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler wrote the way they did. Their detective avatars could be the men they never were. They needed a place to feel secure.
There’s no mystery why this happens. Feeling weak, we writers long for self empowerment. When we feel emasculated, we tell a male power fantasy. When we’re lonely, we fill our dry spells with wish fulfillment. We escape to a parallel universe with a more agreeable set of circumstances. One that’s full of manic pixie dream girls, femme fatales, and sometimes even genuine companionship.
Someone get this blog entry out of my horror story. Get this coming of age piece out of my sci-fi fantasy. Get this cautionary tale out of my dark comedy. Curb the autobiography. Set the diary at the dumpster. My life story hasn’t been lived in enough to fit in with this furniture.
I don’t want to talk about my circumstances. That’s why I tried to write this story in the past tense. I don’t belong in this universe. That’s why I wrote it in third person omniscient, but the story keeps shifting to try and deal me in.
Here I go breaking my hero’s routine with a break up, flashing back to the moment of impact, as a cheap ploy for sympathy. Underdog established, check. Alright, let’s milk this bit. Now my novella is haunted by the Ghosts of Moments Past. Not sure if I should hire an editor or an exorcist to fix it.
This is not the story I want to be armed with when I’m running the introvert gauntlet of social networking events. It will leave me in limbo at the punchbowl. There are too many personal details, too many big reveals. This pitch would make a cramped elevator feel a little too intimate. It weighs heavy on the tongue, because there’s too much information in it.
There are ballad titles in my chapter headers,
torch songs in place of description,
verses cutting through the prose.
You could practically sing my fiction.
Sad bastard lyrics show up in speeches,
blues structure creeps into the timing,
and no matter how hard I try,
I just can’t stop it all from rhyming.
Okay, so really, we’re going to do this? We’re going to let a character whine about watching a sunset alone, and everyone is cool with that? We’re going to commit to words that we bootleg movies because we have no one to go to the theater with? You don’t think anyone’s going to pick up on who’s really saying this? If all of our characters save seats for their imaginary friends, pretty soon our readers are going to pick up on exactly what is happening.
Now I’m talking to myself and making a record of it.
I want to use lies to tell the truth, but the truth wills out. A few grains of it become a silo, and there’s nothing left to omit. I can’t distort it, stretch it, or be economical with it. A half truth is a whole lie, and my internal reader knows the difference. Jonesing for authenticity, my reader knows when something has been cut with bullshit, when a pack of lies has gotten into the mix, when an expression has lost its purity, it knows to squeeze the rest out of me. So I over share to feed its appetite. It keeps me honest with its refined tastes.
This compulsive honesty comes at the expense of a clever premise. Naked emotion costs me the storytelling possibilities that come from outside of my own skin. It narrows the appeal down to those who speak the same language of regret. Where a strong plot could carry a reader, I leave it up to a character’s voice to do the heavy lifting. Where a strong conflict would keep the pages turning, the honesty demands that I pause to dwell on how I’m feeling.
I refuse to accept that a fall from grace is a part of the process, that I have to hit a slump to produce a hit, that a downward spiral is a good point of reference. I have too much truth to draw from. My palette is overflowing with it. Quite frankly, I don’t even want it.
I need to learn to lie to myself more effectively. To vent about things that have never happened to me. To smuggle adventure into my tales of woe. To trick myself into writing fabrications with a twinge of authenticity.
When there’s something in my life to dwell on, it has a way of trying to star in everything. It bursts onto the set when it’s not even in the sequence. I can try to hide it in the shadows, but it keeps sliding into the spotlight, stealing the scene every chance it gets. This thought I can’t push out of my mind, is a diva that refuses to go back into their trailer. It wants to keep shooting until we get it right. It wants its story to be known, even if it’s not the one I wanted to tell.
If I could only smother it in makeup. If I could only give it some direction. If I could only fire it without slowing down the entire production.
10 thoughts on “Keeping My Memoir out of My Fiction”
1) Answer to question: Totally. Unavoidable. It’s hard scraping myself back out of the characters.
2) Practically everyone I have ever known well, even some not so well, ends up disguised in my writing in some form. Also unavoidable.
3) Awesome photos!
4) As always, strikingly written metaphors for the subject. I really enjoy reading your posts. 🙂
My last novella Terms and Conditions, pretty much starred me as a photographer, not a writer. Reflective Surfaces, a novella I’ve yet to release, stars me again in nightmarish circumstances.
One of my problems with this habit is that young white men tend to right about young white men. There’s not a lot of diversity in these stories and it shows at the box office. Fortunately more and more women are entering the fray, but I’d really like to write another story with a female lead. My need to vent about my own shit wants me to do otherwise, so I’m resisting the urge, trying to find a way to make my female lead seem more like me.
Yep, I agree w Freda. And why take yourself out of the scene anyway? That’s where the true pain lies.
I always want to be authentic. I just don’t want to cost myself a great premise just to vent about the same subject matter over and over. Maybe I have to find fresh ways to smuggle those ideas into my stories.
Your photos do tell it all, Drew, that the writer’s personality sticks to each page! Imaginative writing is taking what you have experienced and molding it into something far more interesting. That means beginning with yourself, so there is no way to keep yourself out of the work.
I know. I just want to mask myself a bit. The most spot on criticism I ever received, for my audiobook Terms and Conditions, came from a friend who said, “It’s just you. This character is saying things you say every day. It’s like I’ve already heard this story.”
It taught me to aspire to bend the truth into something less recognizable.
I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there Drew. If friends can recognise you then more bending is probably required. But for those who don’t know you, then they meet a character who they haven’t before and that’s good because the majority of people who read an author’s work are not their family or friends. (Hopefully!)
I get what you say about young white men write young white men. But white women pushing forty do that too! I cannot write women very well at all and I find it easier to write men. To write what you have no experience of takes a lot of time, research and you risk getting people wrong. Which is probably why I’m writing fantasy characters in a kid’s novel to avoid that.
It sounds as though you really want to push yourself though so being reflective and aspirational is nothing but good.
Oh and writing to vent shit is allowed and at times highly necessary.
Great reading your bblog