Photo credit: Anna Yarrow
Since the publication of my first novel in 2016, I’ve been riding an exhilarating, sometimes confounding roller coaster. Some things I could have predicted, like the unmitigated thrill of meeting enthusiastic readers and authors I admire. Other things I naïvely never expected, like the reactions of people who know me personally — or think they know me — and their propensity to try to identify personal details from my life in my work. At times, I have had to insist that I write fiction — not memoir or autobiography.
A concrete example might be helpful.
Scene: A party. I am nibbling on a cookie and resisting — so far — the chocolate cake that crooks a finger and beckons. I am approached by a person who thinks he knows me well.
HIM: I noticed that you put Mr. X in your book.
ME: Who is Mr. X?
HIM: You know who Mr. X is.
ME: No, I don’t.
HIM: Well, you described him perfectly, so you must know him.
ME (more insistently
): No, I don’t. I’ve never met him, so I could not describe him in my book.
HIM: Well, it’s so obviously Mr. X that I called him and told him you’d put him in your book.
ME (now a tad peeved
): You did what
HIM: Maybe you didn’t do it consciously, but clearly it’s Mr. X.
An acquaintance who read my first novel sent me a detailed Jungian
analysis of my work (complete with shadow selves and ingestion of shadow selves). Some men pulled me aside and wanted to know precisely who from my past has made appearances in specific sex scenes. (“C’mon. You can tell me
who that is.” Wink. Wink.)
Friends and acquaintances who have read advance copies of my second novel, All the Beautiful Girls
, have been no different. I have heard: “Gosh, I didn’t know you cut yourself!” (I do not), and “I see you put so-and-so in the book” (nope), and “Obviously, you drew on your experiences with your first husband.” (No, I did not.) Interestingly, no one has expressed surprise at discovering that I once danced topless, performed in Vegas with Tom Jones, or entertained the troops in Vietnam. This tells me that people are capable of drawing some distinctions between my characters and myself.
I readily admit that writers are magpies who pick up and collect all the shiny tidbits for later use.
But why the blending of the two to begin with? Why is the temptation to try to find an author in her work so seemingly irresistible? Perhaps, when we read a particularly moving or engrossing book, we want to know not just the characters, but the author too. We feel an affinity for the writer who expresses what we feel, what we’ve experienced. And if the author did not herself live through the experiences she describes, then how could she possibly achieve the seemingly impossible task of making us feel such strong, lasting emotions? Maybe it’s like trying to discover precisely how a card trick has fooled us — except that we rarely accuse the magician of being an Ace of Spades or a Three of Hearts.
The “psychoanalytic critical approach” to literary criticism is built upon the principles of Freud
: If we all have an unconscious self in which painful experiences are repressed, then authors must be working through their own deep, dark secrets by creating characters who resolve those issues. Too, there are the old adages such as “write what you know.” But if a critic assumes that as an author I am merely recounting my own life — either consciously or subconsciously — then any talent I may have for empathy is rather blithely dismissed. My extensive research, my imaginative process, and ability to use words to create compelling scenes are similarly minimized.
What if, instead, authors are doing as Joyce Carol Oates
has suggested: “My writing is full of lives I might have led.” Maybe as writers we’re indulging ourselves, playing make-believe. Colum McCann
has said that writers should write “towards what [they] want to know. There’s a great freedom in the fictional experience.” Maybe I want to know how it would feel to be beautiful, to dress in fantastic costumes, to attract the eye of Harry Belafonte or have Frank Sinatra serenade me.
McCann resides in the pantheon of my gods because he seems capable of believably channeling absolutely anyone, from a hooker turning a trick beneath a freeway overpass to a magnificently talented, hedonistic ballet dancer or an emotionally flattened socialite living in a penthouse. Rather obviously, McCann is none of those individuals, but what leads to the exactitude with which he depicts such characters, the emotional pull he creates for us as readers, is his stunning empathetic prowess. He can, quite literally, walk in the shoes of another — and then return from that journey able to sit down and recreate it in words so that all of us might participate.
As a writer, I can summon a physical memory of painful times in my life, and I can put those sensations of hurt into words. Over the course of my life, I have known pain and loss and felt them deeply; those experiences allow me to put myself in the place of a girl whose entire family has been killed. I empathize with her situation, even if I have not myself lived through an identical event. That empathy, that ability I have to be in that place of anguish, is intensely painful to me. I spent months in a bleak place while writing All the Beautiful Girls
. I sat down day after day and made myself endure that kind of darkness so that I could describe it, and, if successful, make readers feel a level of emotional identity with my character. It was a difficult time, and it took a lot out of me. But no, I did not live my character’s childhood; I created
her childhood through hard work and compassion.
I readily admit that writers are magpies who pick up and collect all the shiny tidbits for later use. We know a good story when we hear one; we know a telling trait when we see one. We’re detail people, often sitting back and observing, memorizing, busily studying body language with its full panoply of tics and unconscious revelations. In airports, we are not the people glued to electronic devices; we are watching. We sit in audiences before a concert and look about us; we notice that the woman one row in front of us has an odd habit of fussily worrying the collar of her sweater with the fingertips of her right hand. That detail is filed away for later use (like now, in this essay). We hear what isn’t said as much as we hear what is said.
But we are not our characters any more than an actor is the person he or she portrays. We are exercising a set of skills honed over time, just as is Meryl Streep or Jane Fonda. And — just to be sure the record is straight on this: No one has ever, not even once, spelled out ELIZABETH in cocaine as a birthday gift to me.
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Elizabeth J. Church
is the author of The Atomic Weight of Love
. All the Beautiful Girls
is her second novel. Ms. Church lives in northern New Mexico.