Leaving Yourself Behind

“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 am writing a novel. Boy, it’s hard slog. You wouldn’t believe the effort it took to write just 1000 words this morning. And I wasn’t happy with most of it.

Anyway, as I read back on my incomplete (and mostly dreadful) first draft, I am struck by how often I hear echoes of my self, whispering from what is, ostensibly, a piece of fiction.

The whole premise of the novel is based upon a difficult familial relationship – one that I have gradually realised reminds me strongly of my own 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. It’s eerie; they are almost like shadows, or gentle spectres leaving wispy trails of truth in their wake.

I remember 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. And 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 the unmistakable echoes of my relationship with my own mother.

In 1997 I wrote my Masters 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 his 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 always there, resonating through the language in powerful and unexpected ways, gifting our writing its unique fingerprint.

I have written the end of my novel (now I just have to slog through the arid, unforgiving desert that is “the middle chapters”). When I wrote it I cried. Not only because it moved me, but because 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 escape to someone else’s as regularly as possible.

Right, I’m off to read a trashy paperback.

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2 Comments on “Leaving Yourself Behind”

  1. Karren August 28, 2012 at 9:43 am #

    Love this piece. K

  2. belllettres August 28, 2012 at 8:35 pm #

    Thanks x

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