Monday, July 9, 2007

Autobiography and Memoir: A Little Someting of You in Your Work

Friday mornings at Peet's Coffee & Tea can become raucous. The regulars cadge chairs from other tables; sometimes another table is co-opted, and regulars who are not "our" regulars are enlisted for their opinions in the debates, screeds, and attempts at serious conversation that impart a great sense of high school cafeteria.

This past Friday, the subject of memoir emerged from the rumblings, then soon found the vagrant atoms of autobiography to merge with, then evolved into a full-blown speculation about any work of fiction, all works of fiction, carrying some hints of autobiography, some events that could very well be the author's revenge on what really happened, recast in a scenario where a character with whom the author strongly identifies is righting an old wrong or winning a prize that had in real life not been won, had in fact been ignominiously lost.

Someone in our midst--it could well have been Jim Alexander--ventured that fiction allows the writer to go back in time in order to erase past flatulence. You can see from this the high order of conversation and speculation on Friday mornings.

As all Friday mornings do, this one devolved into satellite conversations which run at great variance from the topic at hand, but the implication remained with me, or to put it more functionally, I've been endlessly recalling moments of scenes I wrote in novels which at their writing had no autobiographical connection whatsoever.

Which leads me to the conclusion that we not only perpetuate our own myths, we are influenced by the orbit of the myths of other writers, men and women who literally wrote their images if not their souls out long before my arrival on this planet, the analog of an ET, bearing a blank mind and body.

I'm not much on what James Joyce amusingly referred to in Ulysses as met-him-pike-hoses, or any form of reincarnation, past lives, and the like. In a pragmatic kind of way, I think reincarnation was invented by people who were not pleased with their lot in this life and had to develop a complex system of spiritual capitalism, in which retirement meant merging with You-Know-What. But I digress.

We come into the world with a blank Moleskine notebook (mine has the graph paper checks, thank you) into which we record our impressions and feelings, our accrued memories (great interest rate on memory). In a more physical sense, we acquire scars, bruises, trick knees, bad backs, perhaps even weak kidneys. Not a word about benign prostate hyperplasia, please. Such physical and emotional events affect the way we stand, talk, think, walk; they inform our taste for physical and spiritual things to the point where it is difficult not to write about them. If I were writing about a character I identified with, that character would have certain experiences and tastes in common with mine; a character I'd expect to be at some odds with would vote differently, prefer tea, have different tastes in music. Actors have been heard to note that portraying a character close to their own self is more difficult than portraying someone opposite or at least grounded in different interests and experiences.

So there is a page or two from a chapter or two of a project that looms in my mind, a conflation of acting and writing techniques.

1. To create characters like one's self, the writer draws on incidents within memory, and chooses responses from actual event, whether pain-generated or pleasure-generated.

2. To create characters away from one's self, the writer draws on incidents within memory, but selects different modes of response. The writer may actually invent incidents that he thinks would produce desired emotions.

Do you see the difference? Of course you do: in the first case, the response comes from the actual event. You want embarrassment, you go to a place where you felt embarrassed, then burn the CD of that embarrassment into your character's data bank. Now you can interview that character, get it to tell you about an event that produced the desired response.

In the second case, you want the surprise discovery that will allow you to know the character who is away fro and unlike you. When you interview that character, you ask what event would provoke a particular feeling. Then you listen to the character, carefully, oh so carefully.


Anonymous said...

Shelly: one thing I learned from you this past year was to be a bit more generous with my characters (not just the one 'like me'). This makes them more human and therefore believable and interesting.

Well, the way I think I now do this is to insert a small sliver of my 'self ' into the 'not-me' characters. So at least one thing (and maybe only one thing) that happens to them calls forth a reaction I'm familiar with. Then they've become human to me and I can proceed and let them be problematical in ways that aren't so familiar to me. If I don't do this, the characters are too 'other' and not real.

What you bring up is very interesting. Causes me to consider how limited we are in our empathy. This goes for readers as well as writers, of course.

lowenkopf said...

One thing often slides past us, Karen: Every character believes he is right. Once we can bring ourselves to accept that denominator, there's room for the empathy to inhabit us and show us the surprises lurking within each of them.

Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for your note.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Shelly.
Thought I'd be clever and ask about the manipulators, folks who don't believe in what they say and do. But I guess the answer might be that under the subterfuge they also believe they are right - it's just a bit harder to get at it.