Friday, June 3, 2011

Being True

You know how there are some books that just resonate? Ones that long after the details have receded leave behind this feeling, like a long wake in the water, a sort of emotional imprint that you never really shake?

That's what I'm going for-- what most of us are going for, I imagine. Isn't this the very definition of art?

But the price for this sort of thing is steep.

An interviewer once made the mistake of telling Bob Dylan she really enjoyed his deeply personal and utterly wrenching album "Blood on the Tracks" his response was "Yeah, people tell me that all the time and I've never understood that, enjoying that kind of pain."

Oh, and here's Ernest Hemingway: "There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed."

What are we to make of this? Is it essential to bleed and heart-wrench and get sort of personal?

Um, yeah. Maybe.

Now that I've been re-revising my first novel, I've been thinking about this sort of thing, the way my own hard and often personal truths shake out onto my pages, whether they express too much-- or perhaps not enough-- to create the true experience I am going for.

You see, my first novel (which is tentatively titled "Left of Unsaid" and which I will--with thanks to "Bob" over at Mother. Write. (Repeat.)-- hereafter call "Lou" and is about two newly adult sisters struggling to reconcile after the sudden death of their father, has a pretty damn big kernel of truth in it:

My own father died in an accident during a family vacation. We were all there. We saw it happen.

For almost two years after, I didn't write a word. I couldn't fathom letting all that blood (as Hemingway so aptly describes it) gush out onto my pages, couldn't reconcile fiction with the hard truth of this thing that had happened. I grieved and cast about in a hundred non-writing related ways.

But the truth stayed put. Pardon the psychobabble here but, it needed to be expressed. Or anyway, I needed to express it.

So, on a cross-country motorcycle journey with my now-husband, with little more to do but watch the scenery speed past and listen to the constant BLAAAAATTTT of his '79 Yamaha's iffy engine, Lou was born.

Lou had it all: a sudden death, two nearly adult sisters, a Florida setting. By the time I arrived, I was primed to let 'er rip!

And I did.

At first, the pages captured little more than my own personal experience. The father in the story was a good man--a lot like my own-- he did his best at parenting, he was funny and sort of a square peg kinda guy, and the grief his girls felt was my own pure grief. I could not imagine writing even a mildly disapproving word about this "fictional" father.

And because of that, my first draft(ssss) pretty well sucked.

When I'd gained some distance, I did what had to be done: the father in my novel was no longer a saint. He was edgy and somewhat stingy with his love. (Of course, I fretted that people might think I was writing about my own father, but by then, I'd gotten the distance I needed to separate art and life... at least a titch.)

Still, however, the novel was lacking what it needed to be "true." (Also a working plot, but that's a whole other matter.)

I put it aside. And when I returned after a visit with Zorro and the gang (second novel "Family, Genius, Species" that perhaps I'll now call--what? Fargus?) I had the distance I needed and the father character became edgy, stingy, selfish, the sort of difficult man that keeps secrets-- big ones that will affect the people he left behind. In short, he's much more of an all-around bastard.

But this isn't a memoir I'm writing. It is a novel. And, as it turned out, it's not even about the father's death. It is about the lives the sisters lead after-- lives complicated by the circumstances of his death, the secrets he kept, the challenging sort of love they have for him and each other. It is THEIR story now.

And while it might not be as masterful as "Blood on the Tracks" or "The Old Man and the Sea", I think it's a true one.

How do you use "the truth" in your own work?


Teresa Ashby said...

What a terrible thing to happen - no wonder you couldn't write for a long time.

I often use the truth in my own writing, but I cannot write about something when it is still raw and have to wait for time to pass.

Good luck with the novel.

Anne Gallagher said...

What a gut wrenching post! Just writing the truth in a blog is so crushing sometimes. Baring your soul to the whole wide world.

There are always pieces of my life in everything I write. No matter the genre. I think pulling emotions from our own life experiences is the only way to write.

Thanks for sharing your process.

Heather said...

Beautifully said! The very best novels are the ones that can capture that kind of emotion. This sounds like it's going to be a powerful one. I can hardly wait until you're done!

Perri said...

Thanks you guys!

@Anne-- it IS hard to blog about personal things like this. I took a while to build up to it, but this topic has been on my mind lately and I didn't want to wimp out too much.

Ben Spendlove said...

It's tough to have something that big trying to work its way into your writing. Thanks for sharing your experience.

I guess what I want to be able to say about my characters is that no, that's not me—but it could be.

Donna said...

I've often admired people who write fiction, (my best friend is a wonderful fiction writer) because my brain only writes non-fiction. Everything I have ever written (one short story published in a book of short stories) derives from my life. So, that is what I write. I loved this post and your style of writing. Donna

Jennifer O. said...

I started writing a novel based loosely on my marriage. Opening that vein brought up a lot of memories about the beginning of our marriage and I had to put the draft away after 40,000 words. Six months later I asked for a divorce. Sometimes it feels like that story needs to be written in order for me to get anything else that's remotely decent written.

maryw said...

Terrific post, Perri, deep and moving. You zero in on how really good fiction gets at the truths that underlie the facts of the author's life, and that's how it touches us. I can't wait to read. . . Lou.