Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Life as Inspiration Vs. Writing as Therapy, Part 1

The reason I didn't post yesterday was because we had some news at the day job which I couldn't post about. There was some, um, reorganization done that made a lot of people really happy, but which social niceties required that everyone pretend they didn't know the truth. But it was a world-shifting event, that changed a long standing situation. (A situation that at one point had me home on stress leave for a week and a half.) So while this change could not be properly marked in an public way, it had to be marked privately. 'Nuff said.

Looking back on this past decade of strife, I can say it was certainly a learning experience. An awful lot of people would say to me, when they heard about various things that went on at the day job: "Hey, I bet that gives you great material for your books!" And I'd smile weakly and say "uh, yeah, sure."

Because it didn't, exactly.

I don't write non-fiction. I mean, I write it here, and yes the goings-on at my day job would be very interesting material for a blog, but I'm not interested in hurting people, or losing my job or getting sued.

I respect creative non-fiction. I have to admit, though, that I don't respect thinly disguised autobiography masquerading as fiction. I know, I know, there are great artists who do wonderful things with near-truth. But to me, that's writing as therapy. Which is fine as therapy (I do it myself), and I even recommend that writers do that privately, but it ain't art. It's the precursor of art. It's learning.

The heroine of the work-in-progress is Karla, a movie-buff like few you've ever met. She sees everything in life through the prism of movies to the extent that people often think she confuses reality with fiction. But they're wrong. She never tires of reminding people: "Movies aren't about reality."

And I have to echo her motto: Fiction is not about reality.

A story is not a mirror of life, it's an interpretation of life. It's not about what's out there, it's about what's inside. More specifically speaking: it's about motivation.


What drives people to do the crazy things they do? And what happens when their motivations are in conflict? To understand that requires a lot of thought and analysis. To then display it in a way that makes it understandable.... that takes MORE understanding and art and skill and most of all distance. You can't just grab it out of real life, splat it down on paper and expect it to mean anything. People can watch real life for themselves just fine. You, as the writer or artist, have to go deeper and further, and make it something more interesting and more useful than what people can observe for themselves.

I had a writing instructor who told his students to forget "write what you know" and instead "write what you understand." Anything that you have been through recently, he said, is probably something you haven't really figured out yet. In particular, it can take a while for you to understand your own part in it. Sometimes we never really figure out our own motivations.

So does that mean we just have to forget it when we experience some really great stuff? No, of course not. IMHO, there are three stages you have to go through to process it, and then start using it in your fiction.

The first is Writing as Therapy. This is not just good for people who need therapy - it's good for the writer to help process the event. You can come to a better understanding of your own relationship with the event, too. This is the part where you write in your journal, complain to friends, and write those angry emails that you never send.

It's also a good time to write what I call "wish fulfillment" stories. Rewrite reality to be a just and fair place. If you're frustrated with your doctor's office, then send your nastiest super-villain in as a patient next time. Give yourself supernatural powers to frighten a bully or reward a good person. Or just twist things around to show exactly how ironic it all is.

When you do this, though, do not publish the result. It may be satisfying to think it, or even write it, and you may come up with some interesting ideas - but satisfaction will not translate to the reader. That takes more art.

I'll talk about the more fruitful uses next time.

No comments: