Writers always write about themselves, it is often said. Most writers deny this – they deny it loudly! I can hear myself, recently announcing to a someone who'd read the Shaman Mystery Series…"No, Sabbie Dare is NOT ME! She’s absolutely nothing LIKE ME! Okay, she keeps hens and is a pagan and so am I, but that is pure coincidence!"
I’m right; ‘course I am. But also I’m being a little underhand. Our own minds, memories and experiences are our first arsenal as writers. There is an established link between creating characters and being the character. It has been said by many literary theorists that all character is autobiography, and that no writer can get under another person’s skin – they effectively reinvent themselves each time they invent a character. And although this suggestion is vehemently denied by many authors of fiction, it is the truth…or at least, it’s something writers shouldn’t be afraid to accept in their hearts – and exploit with their heads.
The definitions of ‘fiction’ and ‘autobiography’ are subtle and flexible, and can be put to good use for a writer’s benefit. Each of us has expereienced life in its vast array. All our opinions, experience, thought processes, memories, hopes, traits, flaws, likes and loathings, and all facets of our education are totally personal and unique to us. And yet all of that is also part of a greater humanity; we're profoundly alike, us homo sapiens. We should capitalized all of this as a tremendous source of character. You know you, better than any other person.
Read the following two excerpts…
When I was eleven, my father was taken seriously ill with a stroke. He lay in the middle of my parent’s double bed, so that when the family arrived, the house seemed filled to bursting with people trying find somewhere to sleep
I had been playing in my friend’s garden. When I came home, no one knew I’d re-entered the house. I overheard two of my aunts talking. I can’t remember what they said now, but what I can recall is that at the time of listening I half-understood they were discussing who would tell me my father had died. Later, when my mother did tell me, I recalled the incident, confirming what had been going on.
‘Someone will have to speak with her.’
It was her aunt Vivienne’s voice, a modulated and gentle flute, blown note by husky note. It always made Bridget’s body feel as floppy as a rag doll, like Kate, eyes permanently closed, limbs limp, the way she felt in the optician’s chair when he said: ‘Now, which is clearer…the red…or the green?’
‘Obviously it must be Ann,’ said Aunt Paula.
‘I honestly don’t know if she’s up to it.’
Two of them, Vivienne and Paula – two of a host – heavenly host, her aunts with wings and nativity halos. The family descending, her mother had said. As if from heaven. There were too many for comfort, even when you subtracted Father. The bedrooms were full of family.
Bridget paused in her search through the dressing-table drawers. Paula and Vivienne
stood (she couldn’t imagine they would sit together on the bed) in the tiny box room one wall away.
‘Tony could do it.’
‘He’s the…well…family elder.’
‘No. Not a man. We must give Ann time.’
‘How much time are you suggesting?’
She was nearly eleven, too old to be imagining that every conversation was about her
– bad as thinking everyone out walking is going the same way as you. Childish thoughts, for children.
The whole house was full of whispers. Passing through rooms, she heard tones
dropped and muted. Not for her ears, these conversations, so they whispered around her. Bird-watchers in a hide, looking out at that rarest of ornithological wonders, a child who must not hear.
‘Well, I don’t care.’ Glimpsing the colours of her swim-suit behind school knickers, she
yanked it out and carried it off.
She ran down the road, the swim-suit sailing behind her, still gripped by the same
finger and thumb that had snatched it from the drawer.
‘I don’t care. I don’t care.’
Nina Milton The Diary of Bridget Wakeham (New Fiction, Forward Press 1992)
The first example is totally autobiographical – a diary entry, in which the writer has recounted only what she is sure she truly remembers. It is bland, rambling, forgettable. The concentration on accuracy removes the build-up of tension we gain in the story. It might be thought of as a first draft, in which the writer is quickly getting things down in the right order, something that could be polished…for memoir, or indeed, for transformation into fiction.
The second example is an excerpt from a short story. It is autobiographical fiction – in other words the writer draws on her own experience to weave a story. The section quoted doesn’t stray far from the truth of the diary entry – but the as the story progresses, the ‘plot’ dictates that the story veers into complete fiction.
Strong writing cannot stick too closely to a remembered chronology of events. To gain that tension, you need to lightly alter, or ‘hold back’ information. Drama is generated by removing the ‘blandness’ of diary writing. It also slows the writing down, so that it can focus on the important moment and prevent the writing becoming ‘garbled’. Equally, when a recalled event has been completely revamped to create a satisfying plot, you can still use the character – how you felt, what you thought, what your instant reaction was, what outcome there was to all of that, just as, in my story above, I remembered myself).
Read this at your Kitchen Table:
The 2011 Man Booker prize winner by Julian Barnes – The Sense of an Ending.
Try this at your Kitchen Table:
- Think back – possibly, but not necessarily, to your childhood
- The memory does not have to be crystal clear, but it should still raise emotion in you
- Recount it, just as you remember.
- Check back to my 1st example above – write down things that you can remember and state what you think you’ve forgotten
- Try to write between two and five hundred words
- Now start again. First, have a little think. How would you dramatise these events if you were using them to write fiction?
- Rewrite the facts you’ve now recorded as a very short story or an extract from an unwritten whole.
- Do this fairly quickly...use free writing and don’t think about it much beforehand...you did your thinking during and after the previous exercise. Take the three tips below:
- Dip down into a scene – as in the first extract above.
- Concentrate on that scene – not on the facts your remember
- Recall the emotions you felt and try to portray them, rather than just the facts
- This time aim for between five hundred and a thousand words, or more.