by Julian Neuer
I find it easier to write fiction than to write about myself. I admit there is always a little bit of me in the fiction I write, but it is usually just a little, and it is well hidden — when it is a lot, then it is very well hidden — and if pressed about a particular passage, I can always claim that that detail is totally invented.
“Writing is the only socially acceptable way to be a compulsive liar”, I have seen someone offer as the main reason why he writes. How true. This makes writing equivalent to daydreaming (hallucinating?). When I was a child, I used to lie in bed at night, waiting for sleep to come, and imagine adventures where I figured as the main character, the hero, the champion. A particular recurring episode was a painting contest, where I always came out the winner. After documenting my painting process, journalists would interview me and congratulate me on my success, and the audience would ask me for autographs.
I have never painted a single stroke in my entire life.
On the other hand, Nachtzug nach Lissabon has shown me how a personal journal can be made into a literary jewel. Amadeu Prado’s autobiographical essays are exquisite and relevant. So relevant, in fact, that we forget they are not real, but only the product of Pascal Mercier’s imagination. Would that be the height of fiction writing, to produce fiction that passes so perfectly as nonfiction? No, let’s not be naïve. Whether what we write is true or not (in the sense of having happened in the real world) should be utterly irrelevant; what matters is that readers can identify with what we write, that readers be convinced that what we write could have happened, could happen, could be happening right now. To us. To them.
Then the question comes up that maybe real life — my life, more precisely — is not interesting enough material to be written about. A question to which a good answer would be that scene from Charlie Kaufmann’s film Adaptation, where a beginning writer asks at a workshop:
“What if a writer is attempting to create a story where nothing much happens? Where people don’t change, they don’t have any epiphanies. They struggle and are frustrated, and nothing is resolved. More a reflection of the real world.”
and McKee, the writing guru in charge, answers:
“The real fucking world… First of all, you write a screenplay without conflict or crisis, you’ll bore your audience to tears. Secondly, nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day. There’s genocide, war, corruption. Every fucking day, somewhere in the world, somebody sacrifices his life to save somebody else. Every fucking day, someone somewhere takes a conscious decision to destroy someone else. People find love. People lose it. Christ, a child watches a mother beaten to death on the steps of a church. Someone goes hungry. Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman. If you can’t find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don’t know crap about life!”
But form is important here too. Nabokov once wrote that “style and structure are the essence of a book; great ideas are hogwash”. However, if an autobiographical text is to move the reader through style and structure, wouldn’t it lose the spontaneous nature we expect autobiography to have? Or should I draft, revise and polish every one of my journal entries like I draft, revise and polish my short stories? Can I even keep up the pace such a polished journal would demand? Or, while I’m at it, why not embellish it — like Pascal Mercier did — and create a fictional journal, a fictional autobiography?
So, if I go confessional in my writing, do I have to make it interesting and beautiful, or can I be my own dull self? (Or, to follow McKee’s exhortation, should I learn about life before trying to write about it?) And if I want to write moving fiction, do I have to stay away from autobiographical content? Should anyone really be interested in my confessions?
I should. Another reason to write is “to discover, to express, to celebrate, to acknowledge, to witness, to remember who I am”, according to another anonymous aspiring writer. Writing is psychotherapy. If I never write about myself, is there something I am trying to hide? And can I hide it from myself, when I am just the person who should know best? I have already admitted that there is always a bit of truth in every fictional piece that I write, so I might as well stop trying to hide that truth, and hold it up for all to see. (Sometimes I hide it so well that even I have a hard time recognizing it. I should be more honest with myself.) This is what Pascal Mercier’s Amadeu Prado had to say about writing as the road to self-knowledge:
“It is a fight against the inner paralysis. Why didn’t I start it sooner? We are not fully awake when we do not write. And we have no idea who we are. Not to mention who we are not.”
He meant autobiographical writing. He did not consider the question of fiction versus nonfiction. But I have a clear feeling that the answer — as it often is — is to act. To write fiction, nonfiction, about others, about myself. Different combinations may work best for different people at different times, and one thing is certain: as Andy Warhol said, “the most important thing is work”.
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“Confidences”, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pierre-Auguste_Renoir_-_Confidences.jpg, is in the public domain.