So, there’s a true/personal-story book getting an awful lot of publicity in the UK this week. I have no intention of adding to the publicity/anti-publicity in the messy furore surrounding it all. What I do want to write about is the assumptions of those who ARE writing about it.
One of the things that I’ve found so surprising in the excessive number of columns out there about this writer and this book, is the apparent belief that all writers use their own and everyone else’s lives for their work. The columnists (who are just loving this whole fuss) have mostly been using the word ‘steal’ to describe this behaviour.
I’m looking at my 12 (now) novels and there are four with characters PARTLY (and only very partly) based on people I know. One of those four is me – first novel, of course, and no, not Saz, she is nothing like me, despite too many assumptions that she is! Similarly, in all the books, I think I’ve written maybe a dozen plot points that have directly happened to me, and none of them have been central or vital plot points. I have, of course, overheard the odd lovely line, in the street or on a bus (that’s what bus rides are for!) and re-used it, but that’s hardly plundering someone else’s life.
I guess I might one day, want to write a book specifically about me, or a part of my life, but I haven’t felt that need so far, and I think it’s because what I like about writing is making it up. I like looking at a real incident and wondering what would have happened if. Asking myself what other choices might I make if some plot point was happening to me, or, conversely, what choices would someone else make in my circumstances.
Of course it always comes from me, through me, it is always influenced by what I know, what I feel or believe, I’m not sure it is possible to entirely remove oneself from anything that much, nor even desirable, but the part I most enjoy is getting to PLAY with characters/situations. The book is the place where it’s not real life and so I can make utterly different choices or experiences for my characters than the ones I’d make myself – the work then, I think, is in trying to make it SEEM real, feel real. In State of Happiness (which I’d actually started working on some time before I had breast cancer, though they ended up coinciding), I was writing about a woman with a terminal illness. And she made very different choices than I did, from a very different life. I didn’t want to write a book about my own experience of illness (I did do a solo show partly about my experience with cancer – and partly about swimming! – and I loved making theatre out of both those things) I think perhaps this is to do with my own understanding that the ‘truth’ is more often than not about FEELING rather than FACT. So, hopefully, I write something in which the experience feels real, without having to have actually been a real experience. (I often suggest to writing workshops that we think about what we want our readers/audience to FEEL, not what we want them to KNOW. I think this is especially important for theatre, maybe for film too, tho’ I don’t know enough about writing film to be sure.)
I don’t keep a journal or a diary, in this blog I’m not really interested in writing much about what’s happened to me, more about what I think or feel in relation to making work, I have never wanted to be a journalist, and I like writing fiction (fiction from fact, fiction from truth, fiction that feels like truth, fiction that takes the truth and plays with it so that it feels real when it’s anything but), so I do kind of mind the assumption that all we writers do is steal reality and regurgitate it. At the very least, I think I’d find that very boring.
The other column-inch irritant this week has been the suggestion that all writers live in and of the ‘chattering classes’, constantly attending fancy book launches, where they sink copious quantities of warm white wine. Well no, the days of fancy launches are long gone for most of us (and for many of us they were always more of an idea than a reality). And I NEVER enjoy warm white wine.