Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Your Material

One of my favorite Alice Munro stories is an older one called "Material." It's about a woman whose husband is a struggling writer. They get divorced and years later he's a successful writer, and she finds a story of his that's based on an experience she recognizes from their time together. His story is a good one, but it still makes her angry -- angry that he can take reality and distort it for his own purposes, but also that he can actually interpret and process this material, which a non-writer has no choice but to leave as experience.

(It's especially interesting that the object of the anger in Munro's story is the writer -- it's as if Munro is angry at herself, or at least exploring her own weaknesses. Her willingness to do this is one thing that makes her great.)

I had a friend in graduate school who was a good writer, but whose stories were a little bit light, a little bit emotionally distant. One day she told us a horrifying story from her childhood -- a story so powerful and emotionally resonant we were just flabbergasted. "Wow," we said, "have you ever considered writing about that?" No, she said. "You wouldn't have to write about it directly, but you know, that's powerful stuff --"

NO, she said again.

I think this instinct -- the unwillingness to tap one's deepest wells -- can be a very good one. Writers who rely too much on autobiography for their work often find themselves tapped out. Or else they end up telling the same story again and again.

Still. We all carry around a mass of themes and experiences that can't help but inform our writing. Recently I reread an ancient collection of stories I'd written in college. Not one of them was even slightly autobiographical, but I was startled to see that every single one of them was about the same thing: disillusionment.

Weird! I wasn't aware of that at the time. What about my life back then made me so stuck on disillusionment? I don't remember. But it had to come from somewhere, didn't it? I wonder if the stories would have been better if I'd recognized this recurring theme and dealt with it head on. Instead, the repetition of theme gives the stories the same impression as room full of women of varying ages and hairstyles, but all wearing, say, capri pants.

Anyway. It's interesting to see how different writers take the stuff of life and turn it into fiction: some slap it in uncooked, others let it metamorphose.

9 comments:

Writer, Rejected said...

Alice Munro has some deep, dark secrets. I know this from a friend of hers. She's a great writer, though I've never known her to write about her darkest issue. She goes quite dark, though, doesn't she. I wrote a novel to transform some horrendous childhood event of mine into artwork, and believe me, it wasn't easy. Took 10 years and many sessions of therapy, and yet, I am upon completion, I'm feeling pretty strong and free. Like I conquered something. Maybe that's the only reason to write. I don't know.

rmellis said...

Now you've got me curious...

zoe said...

Me too! Spill the beans...

I don't want to open up a can of gender worms, and am well aware of the fact that this is in no way a hard and fast rule, but don't you think this is an area in which writing by men and women differ? In my experience, women often to write about realistic, domestic issues with a voice that might be confused with their actual real person voice and men seem to be freer to range wider. I aso think people generally assume that writing by women's is at least semi-autobiographical -- as if women as people can't be separated from women as writers. I'm thinking particularly of women with mental issues (such as Sylvia Plath) whose real life self seems to be all many people focus on when reading her work.

Just a thought.

jrlennon said...

Gender worms?

8-|

zoe said...

Incidentally, also the name of my new band.

Anonymous said...

Don't we all have some deep dark secrets? If you know this from a friend of Alice Munro I would say "who needs a friend like that?". One person's "darkess issue" might not be a dark issue for another person?

Gloria, Writer Reading said...

I think the best of fiction has some of the quality of the best of dreams, where the subconscious mind distorts, masks, rearranges, creates opposites, performs all sorts of rearrangements of our our concerns that can be mined on multiple levels. Being too literal about autobiographical material can miss the mining that occurs through transformation and free association. It binds the story too rigidly. On the other hand, rigidly avoiding ones land mines can also constrict one's art artificially, that that friend you mentioned, Rhian. The either/or approach to real vs concocted loses a great deal with either choice. Both/and is the richest choice of all. But what do I know? I'm doomed to the hell no MFA.

bookfraud said...

i agree with gloria (at least i think i agree with her) -- the best self-revelation is often unconscious, and our autobiography is less relevant as material than as fodder for themes, perspectives, and direction.

i've never consciously mined my life story for material, only to find how much of my own fears and neuroses are revealed anyway.

oh, and i would recommend reading this take on autobiographical material in fiction -- funny, true, and probably based on real-life events.

john baker said...

Thanks for this. I found myself empathizing with every word.