Monday, June 16, 2014

I am Not My Characters {On Writing Fiction}

We have a tendency to see the author in the words she writes, or the actor in the roles he plays, or the poet in the poems she pens.  I do, anyway, particularly with poetry, even though know first-hand of how a poem's voice is not always the same as the poet's voice.

And now I have written a novel, a whole book (!!), that is very not-me.  Well, it is me, in some ways, because how can a writer avoid etching pieces of her soul into her prose?  And Ruth and I do share some similarities.

But at the same time, Ruth is very much not me.  She has very different values than me, and enjoys a very different lifestyle than me.  Same with Derek, the male love interest, and all of the book's minor characters.  They live, speak, celebrate, fight, and mourn in ways that are for the most part extremely dichotomous to my own.

So now there's this story of mine out there in a few thousand readers' hands that is scandalous and sensual and full of imperfect humanity and some rough language and characters whose lives don't match my own in almost any way.

I'm not going to lie.  This is uncomfortable, vulnerable.  It's a risk.  But it's a risk that I am okay with.

But I wonder if there are those who aren't.  Friends, family, who suddenly have this peek into my mind and find themselves wondering if they know me at all.

I am not my characters.  But I suppose those who are now perhaps feeling more uncomfortable about sharing space with me might struggle to believe such reassurances.

* * *

What is an author's responsibility with her words?  Particularly in relation to the assumptions a reader might draw from her creations?

In the past, I might have said that fiction had to always explicitly communicate a message about Jesus.  And even though I don't write that way any longer, I don't think this approach (or any) to fiction is bad.

But I also know that it never worked for me, that it felt like army crawling over shards of glass, that the plot and characters that emerged from these efforts were stilted and forced.  I think this was part of what led to writing fiction becoming extremely triggering of my eating disorder, which in turn led me to abandon fiction in early 2011 (I'm so glad I un-abandoned it when the time was right!). 

* * *

So what do I think a writer's responsibility is now?  More specifically, what is a fiction writer's responsibility?

I think that a writer's responsibility is ultimately to the story, the story flowing through her and from her.  That the writer's responsibility is to her characters.  This is why I wrote a love story that is not necessarily reflective of my values -- because it is Ruth's story, because it is the story that came through me when I sat down to write.  Because, in many ways, it was inevitable.

Does this mean that I think Ruth's tale is especially deep, or important, or for every reader?  No.  Her story is important to me, of course, but I don't see her tale as the next Great American Novel either.

But I also consider The Light Between Us wholly successful, because I was true to the story asking to be bornBecause I was true to Ruth, with all her flaws and victories and exquisite idiosyncrasies.

I don't know why this story wanted to be born at this particular time, only that it did, and that now, as a result, it exists.  People can read Ruth's story.  And this, no matter what anyone thinks about the book or about me, no matter how much I may doubt myself, is pretty much awesome. 

Your turn:
What do you see as your highest duty as a writer [or creative person of any kind]?

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"I am glad you are here with me."
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King