Ashamed of Autobiography


It occurs to me that J.K. Rowling may have been writing her own children in the Weasleys… I say this because I recently watched an interview she gave just after publishing Casual Vacancy and she spoke a little about living in poverty. Though it wasn’t a primary theme in the HP series (as I don’t believe it’s a primary theme in her life as a whole), she writes about Ron’s clothes and the Burrow in a sensitive, personal manner.

In my current manuscript, I’m hopeful I am near the end. I’ve written and rewritten, and I’ve come to wonder if the three years I’ve put into this book weren’t my own attempt at distancing myself from my life. I know that’s odd, but my first draft of my WIP was third person limited, focused on the character who is most decidedly NOT ME, which is a really impersonal way to write the story. My second draft was also third person limited, but in a different verb tense. Additionally, there were characters who shouldn’t have been there because I was trying to make the book less like my life so that friends wouldn’t be able to see through it.

It was a terrible attempt to make an incredibly personal story impersonal.

I was afraid of publishing something that reflected me because hatred of it would more closely reflect hatred of me.

“I don’t want the world to see me, because I don’t think that they’d understand…” (“Iris” by the Goo goo dolls).

I wrote the first few drafts of this piece in the most unnatural ways I could manage. For example, my blogging voice is incredibly natural to me. It’s, of course, not the unfiltered voice that I think in or would write in for myself, but it is as close to that as I get when I’m writing for others. It’s funnier and cleverer than my thoughts generally are, and I embellish my vocab. I’m probably more ironic in my writing than I am in my head.

The voice I was writing my manuscript in, initially, was boring. I was trying to tell the story objectively, because I was trying to prove to myself that my story was different from the story my characters were living out. Of course it’s fiction regardless of the voice in which I tell the story. The events don’t match my life. The characters are different, and wholly invented, but they also serve as mosaics of events and people I’ve known.

So then I had a go at telling the story with my blogging voice. Each of the chapters became like blog posts, and it went pretty well. I immediately hit a rhythm, but I felt pretty dissatisfied still at the thought that my readers would be getting a biased version of the story. It was really important to me that I pulled my own agenda, as the writer, out of what I was writing so that I just told a story. Because I’m writing about something that’s pretty controversial, I didn’t know how to do that.

Solution: Gatsby!

The Great Gatsby has always been a fascinating story to me, but not necessarily because of the story. It’s a good story – don’t get me wrong – but I think what’s most interesting is how it’s told. You see, Gatsby is sort of the protagonist. But he’s not the one telling the story and, in fact, we don’t get to see into his head at all. What we see is how others see him and what he does. WHY isn’t in the realm of the story beyond what Nick Carraway, a completely biased, outside observer who judges everyone in the story, tells us.

So, what if the unbiased way to tell the story isn’t to hand it over to an uninvolved, boring and somewhat omniscient narrator… what if I tell the story from the perspective of someone who couldn’t possibly see things fully, and is most definitely biased and wrong about parts of it (if not most of it)?

Gatsby’s love of Daisy was admirable, if inadvisable, right? And we saw that even though Nick was a stupid kid who was thrown into the middle of stuff he couldn’t understand, because he still managed to convey enough that we both loved and hated Gatsby.

Maybe that’s the truest way to tell a story – so that the readers both love and hate the characters, as they would both love and hate me, if they knew me. Maybe it’s okay that I tell the story in my own voice, as if it is what happened in real life rather than a jumble of research and experience stirred into an unreplicable potion of fiction.

Because a girl can’t truly write about poverty without having been touched by it.

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One thought on “Ashamed of Autobiography

  1. Gatsby is one of my all-time favorite books, and I don’t think you can go wrong if you use it as a guide for your own narrative. (I also use Huck Finn a lot when I’m trying to figure out the movement of action in a piece.) Now relax, roll your neck a few times, move your shoulders in several directions, and try not to worry about what some potentially mean-spirited reader might think. That reader will never be happy, anyway.

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