I have to confess something, you guys.
I totally failed at NaNoWriMo this year.
I was doing so well for the first week, never letting anything get in my way–you could practically hear “Eye of the Tiger” playing in the background. When I didn’t know what to write I wrote anyway. I really started developing my characters.
Then I realized that my characters were me and my husband and it was getting too personal and convoluted and I was using it as therapy and I really didn’t want to write this story because it dug too deep and it felt inaccurate and I got overwhelmed. I tried to switch gears, start a new project. Then I got busy. I did what I told you all not to do; I skipped a day. Then I skipped another. I slid all the way down that slippery slope.
BUT: Do you remember what I said about NaNoWriMo being a writing exercise more than a quick way to produce a novel? Even when you don’t finish it, it is. And the point of writing exercises is to open up your creativity, give you fresh ideas, and maybe help you learn about yourself as a writer. For me, it was the latter.
One of THE most common pieces of advice given to writers is this: Write what you know! I don’t fully disagree with the sentiment, but I do think that too many writers interpret this admonition as encouragement to write about their own lives, to the point where it’s practically memoir.
There are quite a few well-respected authors who do this. Jack Kerouac’s work can barely be called fiction. Alice Munro writes essentially the same two or three female characters over and over and over–characters who have different names but share many of their attitudes and experiences, which align pretty closely with Ms. Munro’s biography.
Now, I don’t presume to call Alice Munro’s work memoir–I know it isn’t–but I’ve always felt that she mines her own story much more deeply than most. She’s a role model for a lot of young writers and I see them attempting the same thing but with less success. Part of that is that Munro is Munro and no one else can be Munro. But I think the danger in writing too much autobiography into your fiction is that it can become too self-reflective, even navel-gazing, and spiral in on itself until it means and illuminates nothing at all.
That’s what was happening to my novel. There’s a whole stretch where I’m basically complaining about my husband. It felt really good to write and it gave me some perspective and helped me get through the situation, but it was terrible fiction. It made the story close down. It rusted over my prose.
I write what I know in a more intellectual way. I write characters who represent pieces of me, and flesh them out into new creatures. I write situations I’ve been in, places I’ve gone, people I’ve known, but instead of an oil painting I produce a mosaic. I’m keenly aware of other people’s feelings and try never to represent anyone I know directly in a character. I write about the theater because I have a wealth of knowledge in that department. I write about engineers because my husband is one and I’m fascinated by the engineering mind. I write about cooks and bakers, writers, artists and musicians, people who work in hotels or at coffee shops, students, seekers, collectors, introverts, dreamers and the mentally unstable. I like to do research so I know more things to write about. I read fairy tales and fantasy and essays and news articles. I want to know about dinosaurs and archery. The personality of a wild mink. The chemical reaction between Diet Coke and Mentos.
I used to think this was some sort of flaw: I couldn’t write about my own life. That’s why I pushed myself, I think. I do have some interesting life experiences to write about: I spent much of my childhood in a teeny town in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where the population was about 300. I got married when I was twenty-two. I lived in two places at once during grad school. My son had tremendous medical difficulty when he was young and is on the ASD spectrum.
All of these things will or have shown up in my fiction, but having finally tried writing it straight-out, I learned that’s just not my style. Not now, anyway. And that’s okay.