Friday, April 24, 2009

Writing Life Part III: The Writer's Life

How much of you is found in the stories that you write? If you don't write stories, how much of the author do you think is present in the characters that populate your favorite stories? Probably rather less than you think (unless you're reading Cussler or Hemingway, in which case the answer is supposedly "rather a lot" but those guys aren't necessarily the norm).

I have been told many times that mining you own life for material is a losing game. As with any resource, the more you use, the less there is.

Never mind that Hemingway and many others wrote mostly biographically and thereby created most of the canon of modern literature. Can you continually mine your personal history for stories to tell without escaping your home country to live in self-imposed exile or having harrowing adventures on the slopes of Kilimanjaro or on a battlefield amidst a world war?

Maybe the moral of that story is that you have to live BIG in order to get away with it?

I once thought so. How big does your life have to be in order to tell successful stories... especially adventure stories? (Though it should be remembered that even Hemingway ran out of stories to tell with tragic results.) I once believed that in order to tell the types of stories I wanted to tell I had to go the Hemingway route... or at least the Kerouac. I wandered the central and western United States looking for stories. I went to art school, practically lived in dim coffee shops, braved dive bars and then turned around to climb mountains the next day. Probably the only reason I never washed up in the East Village was lack of gas money.

I admit that I had myriad reasons for doing these things, but at the center was that urge to find stories to tell and the belief that I couldn't tell them if I hadn't lived them. It makes a certain sense. In order to tell a believable cop story, one should either be a cop or have an intimate knowledge of them before you start. Ditto with the military. But a good researcher and a competent writer can overcome those deficits and I'm a damn good researcher if I do say so (and have the awards to prove it).

But still, there was this voice telling me research wasn't enough... get out there and do.

It was a long time before I arrived at the realization that the Hemingway route might make good writing for someone, but not for me. I got married, moved to Washington and bought a garden with a house attached to it. Now I wile away most of the time I used to spend hanging off of mountainsides laying stone paths and growing herbs and flowers.

I don't need to live a certain lifestyle to create compelling fiction. No one does.

There's no formula for life that will turn you into an author. The desire to write and the ability to convert thought into word is all it really takes... but back to the topic at hand.

I suppose it seems easy for me to say this after stockpiling so many adventures before 'retiring' to my garden to write about my adventures. Except that I don't write about them. I tried and didn't get anywhere. I'm not saying I won't ever write about mountaineering or being the first to descend such & such a peak on a child's bobsled (true story) but at the moment, I have found that that most of it goes unused.

My heroes are precocious boys, learned men, scientists, and scholars, but they are no longer prone to be able to field strip an M-16 or defend themselves from ninjas with a spork. Much like me, they're not generally in the business of being either dashing or daring. Most of them spend the book wishing they were somewhere else. And I find that people respond to them on a level I'd never seen before... as if they're real people.

My main character in the novel I just finished is a gardener. A very smart gardener with a complicated past, but a gardener nonetheless. Is he me? No. Absolutely not. I'm not writing an autobiography. And it's worth noting that at no point in the narrative does he really spend any time planting things, it's just there. An item mined from my life and inserted into the story to make him more relatable to me as a writer.

And for all of me that there is in him, there's a lot more of the fictional and that's what I think the key is. Not all hooks are set for the reader, some of them have to be set for the writer in order for a story to progress from idea to print. For me, it's a bit of knowledge the character has that may or may not ever be used in the narrative, something only he and I know. Mined from my life without waxing autobiographical.

So should you mine your life for fictional pursuits? I leave that up to you. Not in the way Hemingway did, unless you've lived such a life that's the only way your government minders will let you tell your life story is to fictionalize it. In which case, who am I to tell you otherwise?

All I know is that I no longer believe it's necessary to seek out the "Writerly Life" in the romantic terms I once attached to it. The idea that you can't or shouldn't mine your life for stories and hooks because you'll "run out" presupposes that you're going to stop living the moment you first sit down at the keyboard. And that is one thing that I would never advise a writer (or anyone else) to do.

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).