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Thursday, January 30, 2020

The Book That I Won’t Write by E. B. Davis



I think most writers have books inside them that they won’t or can’t write. The stories are from real life, those events survived but which evoke too much emotion to write. When a writer is immersed in a fictional world, it’s fiction—something created and mastered—not real life, one that at times cast him as victim, sidelined him to a subservient role, or smacked him with cruel irony. Those times when he knew whatever he said would be wrong; when he chose to turn the other cheek and was badly rewarded for his better nature; when he chose to tell the truth, but the lies of others were believed instead.  

If someone else wrote our real-life stories, they’d be epic books bound to become classics. The books would illustrate living in dysfunctional families and attempting to understand the abnormal psychology of people in our lives. Translating the real world into fiction seems so much harder than creating fiction that is believable and authentic. Why? Shouldn’t it be just the opposite? Replicating what we already know. Is it a case of fact being stranger than fiction?   

“Write what you know” is the advice given to beginning writers. I took that advice and tried to fictionalize episodes from my life. They were all failures. I was much better at creating new characters and situations than taking from real life. Perhaps I wasn’t up to the task, wasn’t writer enough to put them on the page. But I switched tactics. Instead of trying to recreate, I used my real life as research, like knowing how a building business operates, having run such a business for thirty years. I gleaned the exterior facts for my fiction, not the interior canvasses. It worked out much better, but I still think I should be able to use more than just the facts in my fiction. Aren’t the interior canvasses more important?   

Jeanette Walls is the obvious exception. In her memoir, The Glass Castle, she describes her dysfunctional family and her horrible upbringing. I don’t know how she separated herself as the writer and as a character in the book, but she never attempted to make her book fiction. Even so, how does a writer portray himself regardless of the genre? I think it’s hard to do it at all well. We can be objective about our fictional characters, but not so much when using real-life characters.   

I went to a family funeral recently. Some members of the family I hadn’t seen for over four years—on purpose. I had no need to associate with at least one of them who hadn’t treated me well. When I thought about this family member, whom I’ve known most of my life, I thought her life story and our interactions would make a damn fine book, but it’s one I can’t and won’t write. To write such a story, I’d have to relive and suffer through it all again. Not that it isn’t worth writing, but I’d gladly give the story away to another writer.

Is there such a thing as being too close to a story? Do emotions get in the way of good story telling? How much of your real life do you use in your fiction?

12 comments:

Ann Bennett said...

This post made me feel relieved. Everything I write is truly made up. I had promised my family I would not write about them. I had no difficulty saying I wouldn't. For one thing, we are boring. Plus we have all had to experience our share of pain and disappointment. No need to relive any of it or rub anyone's face in it. I know it is all peeking into my writing. But writing helps me move beyond my problems. We all got problems Now my dogs and cats, I lay their lives out in their entirety.

Kait said...

Jeanette Walls' book was amazing and so brave, and so is this blog post.

My first sales were to the True Confessions magazines. They paid $0.03/word and I didn't start to sell until I began mining my own life for inspiration. The early attempts were far too raw to use, my anger and hurt crept in. Then I remembered the old actor's fourth wall technique. Once I began writing from my protagonists point of view the stories came to life. I was telling their stories, filtered through their individual prisms. In a lot of ways, it helped me come to terms with some events.

Ann, my cats lives are fair game. So far, none of them have complained!

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Elaine, great post! As Kait does, I write from my fictional protagonist's point of view and filter. I mine emotions, characters, and settings from living in various places across the country.

carla said...

I do love the process of creating new characters and living vicariously through them. I do mine my own experiences, though-- the emotion I felt can be applied to fictional situations (if that makes sense!).

Grace Topping said...

I'm with you, Elaine. Some things in life are too painful to want to spend months writing about, especially when you have to rewrite and proofread the text several times before it goes to print. That would be like pulling the scab off dozens of times. Not worth it.

KM Rockwood said...

I think there's a big difference between writing about your own experiences and mining your life for emotions, details, locations and situations in which your characters live.

Some people like to write memoirs; others fiction (and some people write both.)

Warren Bull said...

Sometimes time and distance can add a layer of emotional insulation and topics previously too painful can be addressed.

Kaye George said...

Absolutely! I have some family stuff that will never air. Although sometimes I think maybe I should just change all the names and have it published after I die. (Because it's so easy to just have things published while you're alive--must be really easy after you die.) For people who ARE able to get their painful histories out to the world, I can imagine how freeing the process of writing it must be. Kudos to her for being able to deal with the publication, signings, etc.

Kathy Waller said...

Both sides of my family would furnish material for a number of serious novels. We're dysfunctional. I won't write them because I'm not capable of doing the job as it should be done. Most isn't secret or something I'd rather not make public, but I still can't use it. The funny stuff--and there's plenty of that--I could use, and have used. However, the best real characters have descendants who would recognize their close relatives, and changing them enough to make them unrecognizable would take the funny out, so I leave them alone. Except for a couple I've already used but haven't circulated widely. They were fun to write.

Marilyn Levinson said...

I think real incidents manage to sneak into our stories in different forms.

Debra H. Goldstein said...

Excellent blog. I think there are things we never will write about, but time sometimes will allow an emotion or a reaction to come into our works.

judyalter said...

I have been urged by several to write my memoir. They see my life as exciting, a challenge, but I see none of that. I don't see the drama in raising four children alone, which is what so many other see. I don't know if it's modesty or distance or what that keeps me from it. But I can't do it. I often say those who write memoir have some awful problem--mental illness, addiction, etc.--and my life was fairly normal. I too am more comfortable in the world of others.