In my last blog I talked about knowing ourselves, about using that knowledge as the basis of all we choose to write, even nonfiction. I talked about knowing what we love, because that’s where all writing starts, with what we love, what gives us energy, what gives us hope.
But when it comes to writing fiction, we need to reach beyond what we consciously love. We need to draw from the hidden parts of ourselves, the secrets of our hearts.
The first novel I ever wrote was called Foster Child. Looking back now I see it as a well-meaning, overloaded, somewhat clumsy attempt to deal with important topics. (Both religious and sexual abuse.) It was, however, written with heart, the kind of heart that captured attention when it appeared in the world. It also broke taboos so powerful in 1977 that they didn’t even need to be spoken, which, no doubt, contributed even more to the attention it received.
The topics came to me naturally. As a clergy wife then, I had strong feelings about the proper and improper uses religion can be put to. I had also fostered several children and had learned that foster children too often endure sexual abuse in the homes that rescue them. I had strong feelings about that, too. Riding on the energy of those feelings, I wrote my first novel.
Interestingly, though, it didn’t occur to me until years later to consider why I was so passionate about those abused foster children, passionate enough to spend months framing imagined experience into a story that I knew might be too controversial to ever be published.
The truth was, my passion came from a much deeper place than my surface knowledge of the abuse suffered by children in foster care. It came from my own experience. I had grown up in an intact family. I had been constantly and routinely protected, as middle-class girls routinely were in the 40’s and 50’s. Nonetheless, I had been sexually abused, my abuser my trusted godfather and family physician.
When I pounded out that first novel, I hadn’t forgotten that experience. The memory has never gone underground. But strange as it seems, I never thought about it as I wrote. Not once. Not consciously anyway. Rather I thought about and felt passionate about abused foster children. I transferred my own powerlessness, my impotent rage to my character.
I suspect that’s the way knowing informs stories for most writers. We work not so much from conscious knowledge as from a magnetized core in our psyches, one that is at least partially hidden to us. Stories fly to that core like iron filings to a magnet.
In those stories we mine our own ferocity, our own passion, our own knowing. And that knowing brings our characters to life, creates the illusion—sometimes even for us—that they live quite separately from us. But whatever skins we dress them in, they are us.
Often they are the us we are struggling to know.
How might Foster Child have been different if I had been aware as I was writing that I was telling my own story? I suspect I never would have made my way to the end. I would have felt too vulnerable, too exposed. My attempt at writing a first novel probably would have died, frozen by self-awareness.
In recent years I have begun from time to time to shed the protective scrim of fiction, to tell my own story in a straightforward way. Does it make for a better story that way? I’m not sure I can answer that.
I do know, though, that the garments of story have made it possible to spin my small personal experience into a much larger story, a varied and repeating one, and that’s good for a career.
Maybe it’s good for the stories, too.