10 April 2003
If being a writer is all about shouting 'Me, me, look at me, look what I can do!' (and it is, believe me, it is), then keeping a weblog must be the same thing in capitals, in bold, with underlining. I have been musing on this recently - not the ego thing, we know all about that, but the process, the seeming self-examination and the artifice involved. It's doubly significant right now because I'm playing on both sides of the mirror, writing also a first-person narrative which is allegedly fiction.
No, strike that 'allegedly' - it is fiction. Just that it surprises me constantly by the amount that it borrows of what's true. Most of my contemporary work has been set in Newcastle, because that's where I live and it always seemed to make sense to set my books in my own back yard; so I started writing this story of childhood and suddenly found that it was happening in Oxford, all unexpectedly. Which makes the same kind of sense, because that's where I grew up, among the colleges and crows. Only the story keeps coming back to me and asking to borrow more than that, nipping little buds of truth and pickling them in fiction (please note, I may create the metaphor but I avoid the inherent pun; this book is not a caper novel) [but please note also that I do draw your attention to the pun; wouldn't want you to think that I'd missed it. Which is the deliberate kind of layering that I'm about to talk about here, so bear with me].
I've always taken a rigorous position on first-person narrative, that it is actually straight autobiography, only that it comes from a fictional character. So it needs to follow the rules of that form (including the character's surviving the text, or how is the story ever written down?), but it also offers the opportunities of the genre (including the notion of moving on to other work; my plans for Benedict Macallan include his writing a first novel, to follow the two volumes of his life story). This leads to some interesting game-playing, but it means that I feel a discipline, a particular responsibility settling on my shoulders as soon as I start writing in the first person.
And that carries over to this, because this is still or again first-person narrative and the mood is exactly the same, that I'm creating the autobiography of a fictional character, only that character is myself and the material I work with is my life, and I borrow only a little from my imagination. Honestly. The same games go on, but the rules are strict and I do not ever cheat.
And yet the whole thing feels sometimes like a cheat, because it is still a construct, it's not the real internal fly-on-the-wall it might pretend to be. There has been work-stuff recently that I've not been saying, for work-type reasons; there is apparently pure emotional stuff that is clearly not pure, that is in fact processed. I'm a writer, how can I not write for effect?
So I have been thinking about that, and then this morning I was reading some of the not-fiction (I think I prefer that to 'non-fiction', for what should by now be obvious reasons) of James Tiptree Jr, and I found her talking about exactly the same thing. Her example is Harlan Ellison, but the condition is universal, and Tip always says things better than I do, so here it is, lightly edited for ease of reading out of context:
'When you're reading Harlan's natural, candid accounts of his life, are you really looking behind the scenes? You are not. You are looking at more of Harlan's writing, not because Harlan is being deceptive or less than candid, but because he belongs to that type whose life forms into narrative as it is being lived, so that at every act of unveiling, at putting the naked squirm of the inmost flesh into words, another level of reality forms behind and beneath, in which the living Harlan exists just one jump ahead of the audience.'
The only point I'd want to argue is that the life forms into narrative as it's being written, rather than lived; and that therefore we all belong to that type, all of us who do this for a living.
© Chaz Brenchley 2003
Reproduced here by permission of Chaz Brenchley, who asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this work.