Tuesday, July 19

A first novel: Autobiography in fiction

There is a basic rule of writing that goes “Write what you know.” It makes sense. You write best about the things you understand best, the characters and settings you have personally experienced. In that way you best set yourself up to place the telling details and reveal the truth. It may not have the same glamour as the lives and romances of landed English men and women two centuries past, but if you know hunting and plumbing and write about them, your stories will have the honesty of Austen. If you don’t know a thing about the Russian aristocracy in the nineteenth century, you don’t write like Tolstoy. Of course, if this is taken too strictly, there is no opportunity for fantasy, but a story can always be grounded by the conflicts the writer personally understands, be it sibling rivalry or racial prejudice or whatever.

I took this rule too far in my early writing. More than a few of the stories I wrote while attending Gonzaga were mildly fictionalized events and scenes taken from my own life. Some times I barely bothered to change the names. I have gotten away from that somewhat though it is still not hard to find the inspirations for the small Minnesotan town or the western Kenyan bush where so many of my stories are set.

I used to think it was vanity to think my own life was so interesting and rich and full of insight into the human condition that other people would want to read about it. I don’t think that anymore. I write for myself first. That way I can at least be assured of pleasing one reader. And when I write for myself I am trying to understand my life. I remember and create again those moments I thought were revealing and important and try to understand what they might have meant or why I did or did not do something. It’s an act of understanding, too, as I consider especially those whom did not appreciate or like and try to understand their own place and motives.

I don’t know. It’s the beginning of an artistic statement, I guess.

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