‘The house of fiction does not readily admit the self… Your relationship with it, as its creator, is tenuous, complex, subtle, utterly demanding. You are in it; you are absolutely stripped bare in front of it, exposed; yet somehow you are supposed to make sure that, at the end of the day when the lights are dimmed, the fire’s blazing and everyone’s sitting comfortable, it isn’t you they see.’ (Sue Roe. ‘Shelving the Self’. 1994. p51) *
Sue Roe here is talking about her experiences of novel-writing, how a writer immerses her self (as opposed to herself – so I shall treat myself here as my Self.) in the writing process as a piece of work evolves. And yet, as she says, the author must take care not to be visible in the finished fictional narrative, for any number of reasons, both good and not so good. Is this true, and if so, can we really avoid exposing our Selves?
I’ve been thinking about this. A lot. Especially recently, during this latest, long bout of depression, when writing anything at all has been ‘about’ my Self. About my life, and how I feel consumed by it, but am unable to express it in the way I (used to) know how to. Through the written word. Because I think about how exposing the written word is. How we are laid bare, even flayed by our own words. Once they are written, will we not be judged by them? And found wanting? And that’s scary.
Anyone who writes, especially those writers who allow people to read their work, in whatever way, will probably recognize this sense of exposure. This feeling of ‘What if they think this is me I’m putting out there?’ and ‘What if they judge me by what I write?’ As a senior lecturer in creative writing, I’ve found that this is very common in student writers, who are often self-conscious about what they ‘can’ and ‘can’t’ write about. It’s my job to try to reassure them that there aren’t ‘can’s and ‘can’t’s; there are only possibilities and their job is to convert those possibilities into the best writing they are capable of. But I sympathize with them, have been in that position myself, as a previous student of creative writing. Students often think they should be writing for the lecturer, especially for assessments: If they write something a lecturer likes, is interested in, it might get them better grades.
When I was a level 3 student on course for the first class honours degree in creative writing I was later to achieve, I had a conversation with a friend who was in level 2. He knew that I was getting good grades, and he asked: ‘Do you write assessments knowing what the lecturers like to read? Do you write to please them? Is that what I should do?’ I actually found the question quite insulting, although he didn’t mean it that way. But in some ways, it was as though he was questioning my writing integrity. My answer was the same then as it is now, and I stand unflinchingly by it: ‘I would never write to please anyone but myself, if it compromised my writing.’ And I say this to students: it doesn’t matter what I like. It doesn’t matter if I don’t like (insert pet hate here) – it’s what you like that matters. Write what you’re interested in. If you don’t, it will show, and why would I be interested in an piece of work you don’t really care about?’
Of course, writing what interests you brings back the idea of self-exposure, of showing everyone who reads what goes on inside your head. Of being ‘absolutely stripped bare’. Students often worry about writing about controversial subjects; and I guess in these troubled times, they’re wise to be wary, but…. I worry about that. Quite a lot. For example, I teach writing horror fiction (a subject often sneered at by Literary Writers, but which is its own way of writing about the (sometimes) otherwise inexpressible) , and for one of my sessions, I sometimes teach extreme horror (Splatterpunk), in which I invite students to be as explicit, uninhibited and gross as possible. And even then – even with that permission – some students still worry. Again, it’s wise to be wary. It takes a lot of reassurance that I won’t judge them. That I’m not there to be a moral barometer. The only judgements I make is on their writing, the quality of their writing, and are they saying what they want to say in the best way to say it. But what they say is up to them. And that we have to get used to exposure if we want to communicate. Once they accept this permission, students often find that their writing becomes liberating, rather than constraining. Watching this happen is, I feel, one of the best things about what I do. It’s one of the few reasons that keeps me in the job when everything else in Higher Education is becoming consumed by… consumerism.
Still – who is this Self that writes? And are we always the subject of our own work, even though it’s disguised as fiction, or poetry, or drama? My personal opinion is that we almost always write about what goes on inside us. We write about what we care about, and this reflects our Self, to a greater or lesser extent. Again, as a sometime writer of dark fantasy and horror, I write about what scares me, and what I think is relevant to my (inner and outer) world. As a one-time poet, my poetry often seemed to want to talk about women’s issues – fertility, abortion, maternity, although it has dealt with themes of horror too – death, dying, and, especially, the futility of our existence – but in very different ways.
If we look at the work of some other writers, we can see recurring themes running through their work. Stephen King, for example, in his book about writing On Writing (2002), talks a lot about how his childhood, and living in a small town, influenced his writing, and when we look at his work, we can see it. Childhood – its horrors as well as its innocence – is constantly explored. The settings are almost invariably the small town, or enclosed spaces, exploring the claustrophobia that such places evoke. And his characters are often writers who are troubled. Possibly the best example of all of this (for me, at least) is The Shining (1977), in which we get the motifs of The Child, The Writer, and The Place, all in one truly frightening book. Likewise with his vampire novel Salem’s Lot (1976), which mostly deals with The Writer and The Small Town. It (1986) deals with The Child(ren) and the Small Town.
But the writing persona we employ when we’re writing is just one of the many masks we wear and we wear different personas for different kinds of writing. We are complex organisms, and the idea of the single self, the unified self, is no longer accepted. We are fractured beings with many facets reflecting those fractures – writing is one facet of who we are. And yet, it’s everything too. For me, recently, it’s been everything and nothing. Part of why I want to write this blog is to explore that.
Of course, as mentioned above, we are sometimes judged by what we write. People often assume that what we write is who we are. They assume that people who write horror or about psychopathic killers must be that way inclined themselves. They assume that people who write comedy are constantly laughing and funny. We know both are far from the truth, and yet the myths linger, as myths do, albeit they evolve.
I remember doing a reading of a very dark piece in which a cheating male character gets stabbed and killed by his psychotic girlfriend. One of the audience, who I thought knew me, came up to me afterwards and said: ‘But I thought you were such a nice person…’ I said, and still say, to that kind of comment – ‘My writing reflects my interests, maybe sometimes my issues, but if I was that person, or the characters I’ve produced, I’d have been a long time in prison, or a secure wing, by now.’ I am NOT my characters. But I do facilitate them.
On our course, we encourage self-reflexivity, something that every writer, in my opinion, needs to develop. Every student writes a contextual study along with their creative pieces that explores their aims and intentions for the piece they’ve written, how they’ve created it, and – because we must never forget where our writing comes from – what precursors they have researched. And – importantly – does their work succeed or not? Writing these studies gives insight to their writing Selves – we’ve found them very valuable, and students usually do too. I’m not saying that every writer should do this. Of course not. But I believe that good (value judgement, but hey!) writers are truly aware – as far as it’s possible to be, because there’s always a hidden something you can’t explain to yourself or anyone else – of who they are when they write and what goes on inside them that produces what it produces.
This is, in part, what this blog hopes to do.
Roe, S. ‘Shelving the Self’ in S. Roe et al, The Semi-Transparent Envelope (London and New York: Routledge: Marian Boyars, 1994, 47 – 92)