All this month, I have been writing for National Novel Writing Month (NaNo). My early goal, before November began, was to complete a science fiction novel. I had written 15 k in April, and hoped about 7k of it was worthwhile. But as November approached I lost confidence. I have written several novels—seriously. The first, in 1996, was Love Interest. That one was particularly bad. Then Clean Away, A Single Fact, Living in Snake Land, and recently Everybody’s Mother Dies. I queried the most recent novel all this year. Sixty-six agents, and some liked it, some did not bother to respond. I was trying to do something unconventional. I wanted the terrible thing to happen early in the book, and the majority of the novel would reveal how she recovered from catastrophic loss.
That didn’t play. A very kind reader, who read to the end, said this:
“I’m disappointed but we won’t be able to go further with this. Myself and other readers here talked about this through the week, but still the hesitancy is that ‘Everybody’s Mother Dies’ loses impetus through the middle and the great story potential in the familicide (if that’s the correct term) comes too soon and the tension in the book is weighted too much to the front end. Then we have a quiet novel, which is engaging, but would benefit from some of this tension to pick up and drive through to its end.”
This is somewhat ironic since my original structure for this story held the climax back from the read until near the end. I was thoroughly thrashed for that “withholding.” Yet I have read two novels recently that mange to pull off what that original impulse. The terrible event is hinted at and the reader is teased. My conclusion is that there might not be anything wrong with my story, only I wrote it badly.
I might even go back to it some day, but my confidence wobbled. Maybe am just not capable of structuring a novel. Maybe later?
I thought, instead, I would develop short story ideas for NaNo, even including stories I had started or even “finished” a long time ago. This made me a “rebel” according to NaNo, but I was okay with that. I have over 70k today, and technically, I won a couple of weeks ago when I hit 50k. My concern was ensuring that at least 50k of my finished words are brand new. In the last two days I have written 5k new, and—here’s the cool thing—when I tried to transfer over two more full pages from that April science fiction draft, I cut all but two and a half lines! It’s what I have been doing all month. Paste in a 3k story, cut, rewrite, and expand to a 6k story. A story published years almost doubled in length, even after I cut out stuff.
The long and short of it is that I felt like a cheater at the start and now I am feeling like I earned my “win.”
It’s important to me to play fair, even when no one else cares.
In a blog post at Brevity, Zoë Bossier writes about perspective in “The Art Versus the Artist: On Authenticity in Creative Writing.”
“To preface, historically, writers—and especially white writers—of fiction and poetry have appropriated other cultures, classes, and perspectives in their own writing without much thought to the ethics of this practice. And for a long time, they were highly successful in doing so. Many of these works were (and still are) hailed as masterpieces, taught in high school curricula around the world. The place of these works in western literary canon has never been called into question before.”
There are several issues here for all writers. Accuracy and honesty in detail and perspective are essential to verisimilitude.
the appearance of being true or real.“the detail gives the novel some verisimilitude”
synonyms: realism, believability, plausibility, authenticity, credibility, lifelikeness“the verisimilitude of her performance is gripping”
How to get it right? How to be believed?
Am I limited to writing only my own identity? Few would argue that I am.
Writing fiction limited only to writing one’s own personal identity means, for affluent white male authors, that the story is limited to affluent white male characters. There was a time during my lifetime when most stories were written by and about affluent white men. Other than Anne Frank, I was never assigned a book in school not written by a man and focussing on men. More recently, most of the stories I was urged to read during my MFA program were written by affluent white men about their own experiences. Needless to say, it was annoying.
On my own, I searched for stories from other perspectives. I reread Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, and Tillie Olsen who each wrote and write well beyond personal experience. Sandra Cisneros, for example, in her first book of prose writes about a poverty she did not experience with admirable authenticity. Others have not done so well, and some miss the mark entirely.
The classic Chinese poet Li Bai wrote as she. What to say about translations by Amy Lowell?
Even writing memoir, authenticity is at the mercy of perspective. I distrust the male view of Sherman Alexie when he complains about his mother and the affluent white perspective of an adult Vance writing about his “hillbilly” childhood. A few years ago I read a mother’s memoir that was completely lacking in objectivity. I didn’t feel the author lied about her experiences and pain, but that she left her life unexamined. She utterly failed to take any responsibility for her part in the events she describes so beautifully. These are “true” stories, but biased and self-righteous. I recognize this as a mother, as a teacher, as a writer, and as a human reader because I examine the truth of narrative based on broad experience. As a writer myself, I recognize how painful it would be for her, but I want her to do that work anyway.
Like my novel’s weaknesses. I know I need to print it off and find a way to rearrange scenes to make it work. And maybe like that memoirist, it is just more slogging self-recrimination and pain than I can manage. It might be easier to give in and move on. Well, it always is easier to give up, isn’t it?
Fiction or factual, we must tread carefully, finding out way toward truth, accepting that how we present our stories must reflect a greater wisdom earned through close examination, hard-won and painful though that sometimes is.
In the mean time, we must honor authentic experiences in all writing—memoir, fiction, and poetry—from those who expand their view (and ours) beyond the mere self. We can also strive to write from a broader perspective than our immediate self. We do our best to be honest with ourselves and our readers. We can examine our stories, whether memoir or fiction or poetry, from outside our selfish selves.
It is not easy, but it never is.