Not Me


5 April 2009

A student in one of my online classes writes about Don Delillo‘s “opaque” male narrators and characters, many of whom are somewhat unknown to themselves while at the same time seen in lucid flashes by the reader.

I think of Delillo often as I write Sebastian & Frederick, my first serious foray into male protagonists. Other writers who accompany me on this journey–hovering quietly–include James Salter, Hemingway, EL Doctorow, Cormac McCarthy, and Denis Johnson. The greatest difference I am sensing in writing male characters is precisely that they are less known to themselves than my female characters have been. They seem to do more than they reflect. Or it takes more action to lead them to reflection.

This fall I will teach a course called “True Fiction,” focusing on writing autobiographical fiction. I am nervous about it. Initially, I pitched a class exploring the opposite — writing characters who are distinctly not ourselves, set in worlds which our far from our own. My experience with beginning writers (including myself) is that much better writing comes from the latter than the former. My college students did a first-person exercise in which they recalled a childhood memory from the perspective of a character of different gender, race, or culture. The level of writing instantly shot up a notch.

We settled on “True Fiction” because — get ready — it seemed more “marketable.” So many people are already writing fictionalized memoir, we projected we’d more likely get full enrollment. My fear is that it will turn into writing-class-as-therapy, which can produce bad, lazy writing. My intention is to assign exercises like the one my college students did (variations on their own characters, perhaps) as a way of emphasizing that one must use the imaginative muscles just as much, if not more, when writing autobiographically-based fiction.

I don’t go to readings as much as I used to, partially because they started to seem very formulaic, and the writers seemed to hate being there. Invariably, the audience would try to get the writer to “admit” that the novel was really a veiled memoir. “How much of this is autobiographical?” someone would always ask. “How much of Gustave/Jill/Sammy is really you?”

The best answer I ever heard was from the novelist Chang-rae Lee who said, “All of it. And none of it.”

I’m pitching a class at a different school called “Writing Self / Writing Other.” Here’s my pitch blurb:

How do we write compelling fiction based on our lives and true experiences? And how do we write characters who are vastly different from us? In this course we will see how these two seemingly opposite approaches to fiction are in fact closely related and can fruitfully inform one another.

You’ll be the first to know if it flies.


One Response to “Not Me”

  1. Lisa N.R. Says:

    I can’t remember the writer who answered the question, “is this fiction or autobiography?” saying, “All of it is true. Except the parts I made up.”

    Hope it “flies!”

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