Where you end and your writing begins

As of recent, we’ve been discussing In Cold Blood in my “Thrillers: Page to Screen” course.  Capote fabulously absented himself from the text in order to create the feel of a fictional work and, in my opinion, create the illusion of objectivity.  In the past few years, several films, Capote and Infamous, have stuck Capote back in the story, making him the central figure.  As we discussed the evolution of this story across several texts, my students became fascinated with the relationship of author to story, almost more so than the story itself.

Writers—even unpublished writers such as myself—often get asked if they write themselves or people they know into their work.  Often they get annoyed with readers who are interested in their lives or want to know where the art ends and the autobiography begins.  I suppose they feel their art should stand alone, hallowed. Personally, I’ve been much too fascinated with other writers and their lives—Woolf, Fitzgerald, etc.—to ever be offended by such interest from others.  Of course, it’s just friends and family asking me these sorts of questions now.  Perhaps, my feelings will change if I publish.  I don’t know.

It’s human nature to be fascinated with the creative process, because it’s rather mysterious, even to the creator.  However, some readers want to validate the truth they sense in fiction or poetry with some sort of absolute reality.  The logic goes: this feels true, so it must be based on fact.  If I uncover the fact, then I can know that it is true.

I take issue with this motivation, because it often arises from discomfort. Facts often allow the reader to box and store the experience he or she has had with a fictional work.  For instance, if you read something disturbing and then learn that the writer has had a hard life, you can say, well, that’s just the writer working through his issues.  Suddenly, you don’t have to deal with what you’ve read; it’s someone else’s issues.  You become a passive, perhaps condescending, observer.

Also, it’s wrongheaded to draw a line directly from a writer’s life through his work.  The relationship between the events of a writer’s life to his work is complicated.  In my case, I never set out to represent myself as a character in what I write. Nor do I set out to represent anyone else.  However, I feel as though all my characters are parts of me, and in as much as other people are a part of me, my characters are parts of the many of the people I know.  Some of those parts are superficial, some rather deep.  Every character is a collage.

A reader should be permitted, even encouraged, to read about and think about a writer’s life.  Heck, I’m asking for the new, well received Patricia Highsmith biography, The Talent Miss Highsmith by Joan Schenkar, for Christmas.  But readers need to remember that the relationship between art and life is complex and not easily packaged and shelved. They need to be open to discovering more questions than answers when learning about a writer’s life.

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