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The Perils of Writing Close to Home: Truth vs. Fiction

Keats had a term for this: negative capability. He saw the writer’s ability to lose his own identity in the imagined experience of others as his distinguishing feature. “If a sparrow come before my window, I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel,” he wrote to a friend. His poem “The Poet” begins “Where’s the poet?” and proceeds to riff on the mutability, the uncentered absence at the heart of the true artist. He’s nobody all right, and as gleeful about it as Dickinson was. The poem is all. As one of my college English professors used to bellow when we responded to one of his questions with mute stares, “Don’t look at me! Look at the text!”

And so we gesture to our work, the fruit of our labors. I don’t always like the metaphor of book-as-child, but perhaps it can explain what I’m getting at. Once a book is out, sitting sprucely on the shelf, decked out in a new jacket and ready to greet the world, it’s all grown up. We want to see it go out on its own, meet people, have adventures, and live an independent existence. We don’t want it to have its life compared to ours at every point, or to seem successful only insofar as it looks like us. We, after all, have been reduced to a line of letters across the cover, just as, in a child, we’re merely a jumble of DNA on the genome.

As writers, we want to be so reduced. After all, would we choose to forego reality for long stretches of time, sitting in a study, hunched over a computer screen, while life seethes and rollicks away outside, if at heart we didn’t believe there was something better, something finer or deeper or truer about words on a page? Something that trumps reality, for all its belly-shaking, skin-crawling, spine-tingling tangibility?

There’s a deep issue here: the question of why we write. Even the most realistic writer doesn’t write merely to capture reality. We write to convey our perceptions, those ineffable, head-bound transactions between our finite consciousness and everything that roils outside it. We write because writing is the best substitute we have for a Vulcan mind-meld, for letting someone else join us inside our perceiving selves. It’s not simply that we want others to see the things we see—we want them to see things the way we see them, to feel them the way we feel them. It’s not about things being seen. It’s about our particular take on the way things are understood.

“Archimedes said that he could move the world if he had a point whereon to rest his machine,” wrote William Wordsworth. “Who has not felt the same aspirations as regards the world of his own mind?” To get outside of our own heads, to find the point from which to make our own consciousness an object of manipulation—not a prison-house for the soul but a thing to be shared—is the dream of writing, the dream, in the end, of all language.

And when it works, what glory! What wonder! What relief! And what terror, too, because, once someone joins you in your head, she may impose perceptions of her own, Being John Malkovich–style. But even that is exciting. Hearing someone detail for me what she thought was going to happen to my characters after the last page—even when it differed completely from my own ideas—has been the most enjoyable part of publishing a novel.

And in the end, this is how I got my head around readers’ inevitable tendency to connect the dots between fiction and reality. It’s an attempt to find mutuality, to get to that piece of common ground where all of us—the writer, the reader, the characters—occupy the same space. Perhaps it isn’t ignoring the art, after all. Perhaps it is just another road in.

Still, I don’t plan to have any pilots in my next book, and I won’t be setting it in Michigan. Maybe a state I’ve never set foot in—Ohio, perhaps.

Ginger Strand has written for the Believer and Harper’s, and is a regular contributor to the Books section of the Dominion Post in Wellington, New Zealand. Her novel, Flight, was published by Simon & Schuster in May.

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The Perils of Writing Close to Home: Truth vs. Fiction (September/October 2005)
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