Sunday, 8 March 2009

Up Close and Personal


Writers have been getting a bit of flack, recently, for dragging their personal lives into the public eye. I’m thinking in particular of Julie Myerson, whose latest novel “The Lost Child” chronicles how her teenage son’s addiction to cannabis finally led her and her husband to change the locks in order to keep him out of the house, in a desperate bid to save their sanity and the unity of the rest of the family.

Just because it makes her feel better to write down her feelings that’s no reason to expose her son to such public scrutiny, screamed the opinion columns.

Julia Donaldson has written “Running the Cracks”, nominally a thriller about a runaway girl and a goth paper boy. Despite her best intentions Donaldson was unable to resist the lure of peppering the novel with characters based on all those people she ran across during the many times her son Hamish – psychotic and violent for much of his young life - was hospitalised.

Because the readership for this novel is young adults, Donaldson admits to painting a slightly rosier picture of mental health problems than reality. But it’s something she needed to write about, she says, after the death of a son, who stepped in front of a train at the age of 25.

One of my favourite writers, Elizabeth Jane Howard wrote “Falling”, a fictionalised account of her relationship with a man who tried and very nearly succeeded in conning her out of her money and home when she’d reached an age when the idea of someone falling in love with her seemed highly unlikely.

I’m guessing all these writers struggled with the idea of putting their most intimate thoughts out there and lost sleep worrying if they were simply exploiting their own pain for reasons of commerce. But to paraphrase Julie Myerson – writing comes from a place writers don’t always have control over

Recently, within my own family, something came to light that – briefly – tipped our world on its axes if only for a short time. I came to terms with it through the usual avenues, talking to friends and family, listening to the experience of others in similar situations.

But I am a writer. And slowly, slowly it began to dawn on me that sooner or later I was going to have to nail the moment. It seemed vital to set down, in fiction, the essence of the experience as I had experienced it.

Of course I thought about the other people I’d be involving and how they might feel were they to pick up a magazine and read about it set down in black and white. And I know that I’ll be accused of exploiting the event for money.

If this story gets published then I’ll use a pseudonym. If I get paid for writing it then it’ll be money well earned. In the ruthless pursuit of a good story, as far as I’m concerned, I’m afraid there are no holds barred. But I hope I’ll be forgiven if my story touches the hearts of even just a handful of readers. I ask no more than that.

21 comments:

CarolineG said...

A brilliant, thought-provoking post, Geri.
I hope that if and when you do write about your own recent issues, that it both helps you and is met sympathetically by others.

Gillian McDade said...

Thanks for sharing with us Geri. I imagine this kind of writing is a cathartic experience for many. Great post!

Bernadette said...

I do think it's different, Geraldine, if you publish a fictionalised account under a pseudonym. Probably only the people involved would know that the story was about them. Anyone who wasn't already aware of the facts and people involved in the real incident would be none the wiser.

However, I don't believe that 'writing comes from a place writers don’t always have control over' can be used as excuse to hide behind. It is possible to write things as a cathartic exercise without offering them for publication! Everyone has to make their own choice on where to draw the line with publishing this type of writing - mine would probably be somewhere between what you are suggesting and what Julie Myerson did - but the responsibility for that choice surely has to rest with the writer, not with some uncontrollable 'I am a writer' force.

Rebecca Connell said...

It's true that the choice to publish/seek publication is ultimately down to us as writers - but I do think that opening up our thoughts and feelings to a wider audience can be an important part of the cathartic process.

It's something I've fought shy of doing too explicitly in the past, but I wouldn't entirely rule it out. I hope you can use your recent experience to brilliant effect, Geri!

Roderic Vincent said...

Fascinating post! Have you ever had the experience of feeling guilty at the time?

Some emotional or traumatic event is going on in your life and part of you is observing it, watching the reactions of yourself and others, collecting data for future fiction.

Or am I just sick?

Geraldine Ryan said...

Roderic - you're not sick, or, if you are, then so are all writers. I'm grateful to WriteWord's Naomi for the following quote attributed to Margaret Attwood:-

The Devil comes to a writer and says, "I will make you the best, most famous writer of your time. You will be influential and your fame and glory will last for all time. All you have to do is sell me your grandmother, your mother, your wife, your kids, your dog, and your soul." The writer quickly reaches for the pen begins to sign the contract, and suddenly he pauses and looks up and asks, "Wait a minute, what's the catch?"

Bernadette, you're probably right and a much nicer person than I am! I just can't stop myself I'm afraid.

Gillian, Rebecca and Caroline - thanks for your comments. I do, actually, feel an obligation to write about a topic that's usually avoided in women's mag fiction, so to a certain extent my conscience is clear - ish.

menopausaloldbag (MOB) said...

Writing is cathartic; a superb way of letting go of feelings, releasing tension and is wholly therapeutic in that it can be as good as talking with a great therapist. Problems that seem irresolvable as floating thoughts running around your head start to organise themselves when written down. We will use life experiences in creating stories and multi dimensional characters but I believe that it is the responsibility of the writer to take ownership for what is written. The pen is mightier than the sword and never a truer word has been said. We can destroy people with the sweep of the pen or the click of the keyboard. What is said can never be taken back so there is a moral requirement upon the writer to use the pen with care. I prefer to fictionalise the traits or behaviour of people into 3d characters where hopefully the originator would not recognise themselves. Great thought provoking post.

Bernadette said...

Geraldine, I am quite certain I'm not nicer than you!

If people are happy making choices that others might not make, that is entirely up to them. Each to their own, and everyone has a different opinion and perspective.

I just think they have to accept that it is a choice, that they have to take responsibility for it and that they shouldn't then hide behind 'being a writer' and therefore unable to help themselves.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Very thought-provoking, Jem.
I guess we are fiction writers, and so those bits that are fact are likely to be disguised pretty well? After all, it's the feelings around the experience which we're working through, as much as the experience itself.
Susiex

sarah fox said...

A brave decision - I'm not sure I would want to tackle it just yet, being such early days, but then again, I suppose you still have that 'rawness' and emotion.

I heard Julie Myserson discussing her book today. She has been upset by all the adverse publicity but she's a very strong character and she says that she is always there for her son, but hopes this will shock him out of his drug taking. I'm really not sure what I feel about a writer taking this course when the subject is unhappy about the publicity...I don't necessarily think that being a writer justifies being a publicist... but I would not judge anyone without knowing all the details.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Geri, really interesting.

I use a fair amount of personal experience in my writing, although as time's gone by that's changed to being more in the wider sense than in the detail. In fact, I've become more and more liberated - writing wise - by letting go of specific incidents and letting characters evolve as they seemed to want to.

I do think we make up stories to help make sense of our experiences, and the wonderful thing about writing is that we in control and can do what we like with it. I love that aspect

Having said that, i only use things from the dim and distant past (mostly) - plus i'm not published - so those guilt and responsibility issues don't really apply to the same extent.

poppy

Jacqueline Christodoulou said...

A great post Geri.
I have had some experience of 'turbulence' with my son and in researching all the issues around his life in order to understand it I have become more enlightened.
I fail to see how this education would not impact on my writing, even in some implicit way.
Writing to directly raise awareness is, in my opinion, an essential form of communication.

Yummy Mammy said...

I think most writers will admit they they have written about a personal experience at some point or other. It makes sense to write about what you know. I've heard many a writer tell how they have killed people off that annoyed them that day or made their school yard bully the villan or the bloke they fancy the hero. I know some books are more personal but I do think that most of us create our fictional characters from our subconscience.

Book Report said...

Whenever I read good books, I do think if the events or the whole story itself is true. I am a reader but trust me, reading alone does not tell absolute truths about the connection of the story to the author. I admire your post.

If ever there are writers who based their stories on their real life events, I see nothing wrong with it. With this move, they are able to express themselves better and maybe, just maybe, their book will be a lot more "attractive" to the readers. But if the author's life has been an open book to all, I think here lies that issue. It's like sharing your whole life to the world.

I am a coursework writer and what I write are educational and straight to the point. I have always dreamed of writing a book about my life. If I will do this(hopefully soon), I will have second thoughts of sharing my whole self. After all, my readers will never know that the story is about me.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting article/editorial by Libby Purvis about the Myerson case in yesterday's Times. Should be available online, on Times website.

poppy

Geraldine Ryan said...

Here's the link that very mature and reflective article by the admirable LP who has had more than her share of troubles with her own son but chose not to write about his life and suicide.
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/libby_purves/article5870776.ece

Thanks for your comments everyone.

Rosy T said...

Really thoughtful post on this tricky topic, Geri.

Lydia said...

Topical post. I too read the LP Times article with interest. I think it's a question of degree. Writing baldy about the whole messy emotional issue as fact (as Julie has done) is a bit much, but one of the things that makes our work publishable and hopefully enjoyed by readers is that it touches a cord with them. They can identify with the problems and since we're writing fiction we can provide them with the happy ending that so often eludes them in real life.

Samantha Tonge said...

I don't know - i guess it depends what it is. I wasn't sure about Carol Thatcher's recent insights into her mother's dementia. I think you have to be very aware of the privacy of another person, if it is going to be obvious to others who you are writing about.

Samantha Tonge said...

Great post btw, Geri!

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