Monday, September 10, 2012
We had an interesting discussion in writing class the other night, a discussion stemming from John Gregory Brown's wonderful essay, "Other Bodies, Ourselves: The Mask of Fiction." Most of Brown's essay seemed inarguable and long overdue when he published it in Julie Checkoway's Creating Fiction over a decade ago. Brown's thesis is quite simple: As fiction writers we tend to avoid presenting in our novels and stories the facts of our lives; typically, we employ characters that in significant, meaningful ways are different from ourselves, characters with biographies that are all but alien from--and probably way more bizarre than--our own. However (and here's the rub), even as we invent and extend these fanciful stories about people whose lives are so unlike are own, we may at the same time--certainly not always but at least some of the time--be literally laying ourselves bare for the whole world to see. Does this sound like a contradiction? Of course it does. Because it is. But it's also true. As Brown explains, the contradiction is based in the fact that the author rarely if ever intends to lay himself bare or even realizes he is doing so. Brown gives the example from his own career about a novel he was writing during the period that his wife gave premature birth to twins, one of whom did not survive and the other of whom had to remain in the hospital, strapped to machines, for several weeks running. Early in the morning, he composed new sections of his novel, and then he and his wife made the long, sad drive to the hospital to visit their lone surviving child, the one kept alive by machines. During these trips his wife read and commented on what Brown wrote that morning. Brown explains that while he never realized it at the time, looking at the book now he sees nothing in his protagonist's inner life but the shock and grief he himself was struggling through then. Understand, there is no dead baby and no sick baby in the protagonist's life, but her form of sadness is identical, Brown says, to his own at the time. He wrote his life into the novel unconsciously and unintentionally. But, I suppose, inevitably.
It's a common notion, and a true one, that a writer invests many of her characters with different pieces of herself, so much so that everyone in the story can be said to be a form of the writer even when they are extremely unlike one another. I've heard this point made--it was made the other night by one of my students--and I understand it. I've done just this thing myself many times, maybe every time. But it's also a more conscious effort, and a more purposeful kind of kinship, than what Brown describes in "The Mask of Fiction." Brown is talking about how the metaphors and parallels we subterraneously employ are truer to the facts of our lives than any actual facts we could write. I had an experience similar to Brown's several years ago with a story I wrote not long after my father died (tragically and accidentally). The story features a former circus bear who lives in a big picture window at the front of a hardware store. The hardware store owner sees this set-up as a kindness to the bear, whose career is over, its fame used up. The narrator's father takes a shining to the bear and in the process takes a shining to the hardware store owner, a man he has never had much patience for. But as the story winds down, the bear dies, upending at least three separate lives in the world of the story, leaving the picture window newly and nakedly empty. Well, I swear to you that all I thought I was doing when I composed that story was taking a pleasantly perverse idea--an ex-dancing bear who lives in a hardware store window--and running with it to a dramatically satisfying end. Not until I presented the story to a friend's class and answered questions about it did it hit me what I had been doing: writing down the raw shock of the loss of my father. The story screams it; it's in every line. But no one who does not know me privately would ever be able to see it. Because I never intended to do it in the first place.