“But if these years have taught me anything it is this: you can never run away. Not ever. The only way out is in.”
–Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
If you’ve pottered around my site for long enough you will know that I’ve been writing a novel. It’s finished now, and I’m in the process of trying to publish it. Boy, it was hard slog. But I’m proud of it, and excited to share it.
Over the last few weeks, as I’ve been doing a final proofread, I’ve been struck by how often I hear the gentle song of my self, whispering from what is, ostensibly, a piece of fiction.
The novel is based upon a difficult familial relationship – one that reminds me strongly of my own life and experience. And yet I didn’t set out to write it that way. My characters have evolved almost by themselves, and they have become, unintentionally, expressions of my own heart or soul or whatever you want to call it. They are fictional characters in their own right, with distinct personalities and developmental arcs, but in another sense they are prisms: turn them a certain way and they are whispered reflections, spectres leaving wispy trails of truth in their wake.
A few years ago I went on a writing course at the University of Auckland. We were tasked with putting pen to paper and writing furiously for an hour to see what we came up with. What did I produce? A 100% fictional short story about a daughter and a mother. But inevitably, between the lines (or perhaps embedded in them) were echoes of my relationship with my own mother.
In 1997 I wrote my master’s thesis on Ciaran Carson, a Belfast poet. He wrote “about” The Troubles in Northern Ireland. I use inverted commas because in an interview he very kindly granted me, he strongly denied his poems were about The Troubles at all. Furthermore, he was adamant his poetry should not be interpreted as political comment. So many of his wonderful poems, however, clearly demonstrated that he could not escape himself. You could hear the guns and smell the blood and feel the fear on almost every page, even in the poems that, on the surface, had nothing to do with Ulster or Belfast or The Troubles. And Carson’s refusal to participate in political discourse was in itself, of course, a political statement.
If you can, take the time to read some of Carson’s work. Belfast Confetti is one of my favourites.
Whether you’re a professional like Carson, or a beginner working on your first short story, you can learn a lot about yourself as you write. Things deep in your heart can surface: wounds from your childhood, a forgotten figure who meant the world to you, your complicated relationship with your parents, your true political leanings, your most closely guarded fears and longings. Almost like a therapist’s couch, only cheaper (but sometimes just as uncomfortable).
Even if we do not write about these things explicitly, they are stubbornly there, resonating through the language in powerful and unexpected ways, gifting our writing its unique fingerprint.
When I wrote the end of my novel I cried. OK, it may have been a reaction to finally finishing the goddamn thing (and perhaps also a recognition that the draft was a bit shit and needed a bloody good edit). But the tears were also because the ending moved me: I realised that in a way, it was the ending I would have liked to have written to my own, real-life story.
Writing can be a salve, a therapist, a saviour. But it can never be an escape, not really. Reading, on the other hand, is a marvellous escape. Perhaps this is why writers are also avid readers: they can’t stand being in their own heads for too long. They need to flee to someone else’s world as regularly as possible.
This may be why I am currently reading the hilarious Seven Kinds of People you Meet In Bookshops by Shaun Bythell. Although, given the amount of time I spend in bookshops, it’s not really an escape…