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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Fiction writing as an act of public nudity

A writer friend and I have been in an interesting dialogue about the private (and public) side of writing.

The topic arose because she's just finished the first draft of a wonderful novel, a coming-of-age story about a girl making the transition between high school and college.  Knowing my friend as well as I do, it is easy to see that she shares some personality traits with her main character.  My friend worries that if people read her novel -- which I hope they will, some day -- readers will become convinced that the story is, at least on some level, autobiographical, and will judge her based on the actions of the character she created.

My reply was that there will be this label that says "Fiction" on the spine of the book, so anyone who doesn't notice that or doesn't know the definition of the word deserves everything they get.  But on a deeper level, her question is a profound one.  Because in some sense, all fiction writing is autobiographical, isn't it?

I can say, without exception, that every protagonist I've ever written -- and more than one of the antagonists and minor characters -- is, in a way, me.  You can't write what you don't know, and that extends just as much to characters as it does to setting, time period, and plot.  None of them are intended to actually be me, of course; all of them have traits, quirks, and personal history that is different from my own.  But in a very real sense, if you want to find out who I am, read my fiction.

This gives a serious spin to my friend's question, because to be read means to be known, on a fundamental level.  It's a scary proposition.  I've already closed my eyes and leapt off that high diving board by publishing my novels in e-book format on Amazon and Barnes&Noble.  But truly, it still terrifies me in a lot of ways, and it's not just getting the "your writing sucks" reviews that all authors dread; part of it comes from the fact of exposing your soul in public.  There's something about having people read your work that's a little like walking out into the middle of the road, bare-ass naked.

And there's no doubt that it can backfire sometimes.  I still recall, with some pain, when I let a (former) friend read the first three chapters of a work-in-progress, and her critique began with a smirk: "What's wrong with this story is like a system error on a computer; it's a problem that makes the whole thing crash."  How that was supposed to be helpful, I don't know, and in fact with the perspective of time (this incident happened about fifteen years ago) I now find myself wondering whether it was supposed to be helpful.  The critic in question was herself an off-again-on-again writer who had never completed a manuscript, and I suspect that the viciousness of the critique had at least something to do with jealousy.  At the time, however, her response so derailed my confidence that it was years before I actually picked up (and eventually completed) that novel.  (If you're curious, the novel is The Hand of the Hunter -- which is still one of my personal favorites of the stories I've written.)

So, in a way, all writing is personal, and all writers have a narcissistic streak.  We wouldn't write about something we didn't care about; our personalities shape our stories, and therefore our stories are reflections of who we are as people.  It is an act of bravery to put what we create out on public display, whether that display is on the level of sending it out to a few friends or publishing it for international purchase.  We are actually selling little portraits of our own spirits, and hoping and praying that the ones who look at them won't say, "Wow, what an ugly little picture that is."


  1. I loved this post. It mirrors some of my concerns but since I'm writing fantasy and historical novels, it should be perfectly clear to most of my readers that the people are different from myself even if they share part of my soul.

    I found that in the end, it doesn't matter if some people dislike my writing. There are enough who do. I can't read everything either, and found some books on national bestseller lists tedious or boring. How can I expect that everybody will like my stories? I'm grateful for every reader who enjoys my stories. It's the one-at-a-time technique and maybe, it'll help your friend too. She doesn't has to be friends with the whole world, but she needs to be friends with those she cares about (her family, her friends and her fans)

  2. I loved reading this post, and then Cat's comment added to it even more. I've always felt a little bit naked when sharing my writing, and sharing has been difficult for me for exactly that reason. I'm even guilty of "holding back" certain things that my writing wants to do, for fear of how people will respond to that little bit of my soul.

    But processing it with what Kat said... maybe readers who enjoy my stories are the same thing as friends... writing is an extension of that part of us that reaches out to others who are like us, and enjoying someone's writing is akin to that recognition that another person is, in some way, a kindred spirit.