Thursday, February 10, 2011

Private Enemy #1

It's a very common phenomenon that one's very first protagonist is an autobiographical one, thinly veiled (although, in most cases, not very thinly at all). This ought to be accepted by the writer as a stage in the life of her mind, similarly to the way a mother tolerates the toddler who won't shut up or stop crapping its pants along the way to becoming a self-controlled, sentient person.

This phenomenon certainly applies to me. Way back around 2003, I wrote a book called "Clear Blue Sky" which starred a completely unlikable, selfish, boring protagonist who happened to be myself. Well, a projection of myself; it wasn't a great time for me. Then I wrote "In Stereo Where Available," which wasn't the least bit autobiographical (contrary to what my son's science teacher seemed to believe), followed by a little book called "Desperado City," which was totally that book we all believe we have deep within our soul. Most of us are not fortunate enough to get that book published. In my case I was, and Publishers Weekly was happy to use this achievement as a cautionary tale, calling the book "a schizophrenic tangle" and a "teen soap opera" or something like that. Were they wrong? Unfortunately, no. I think the book I affectionately refer to as "DC" showcases both the strengths of my writing and my profound need, like most writers, for an editor.

It's my opinion that a writer's skill is really determined by whether she can keep turning out damn good novels once she has exorcised the autobiographical protagonist. There are a lot of writers who have turned out stunning first novels rooted in their own experiences as children or young adults-- I won't give examples, because I really love a lot of these books-- and then that's that. The next books are either on the same topics, or else they stretch out but disappoint the readers. I always feel perplexed when this happens because it seems obvious that the writer has a fabulous skill set which has nothing to do with the subjects in particular.

I feel fortunate in that once I got DC out of my system, I turned my attention to a novel that proved to be much better. I found a subject that captured my imagination-- why would a teacher, who has everything to lose, do that?-- and fell in love with the characters my mind sketched out to inhabit that world. To a great degree I think I was fortunate that the book I had in my soul didn't quite match with the skills I believed I had in my brain. It forced me to fire my muse and try again with a new one.

At the top of this post is a picture of me at age seventeen or so. For a long time, this was the girl I wanted to write about. Looking over the patterns in my writing, I can see that the features of this age-- the mistakes made, the loves ignited, the fear and awe of the world and the crushing naivete that makes it all so poignant-- are something I feel compelled to write about over and over. That's all right. What's important is not to limit myself to similar characters or similar settings in which to explore these themes. I thanked seventeen-year-old Becky for her service and sent her back to 1993. Sixteen-year-old Zach, in "The Kingdom of Childhood," is concerned about many of the same things that preoccupied Becky, but Zach doesn't think like her at all. His concerns are different; his hopes and desires and values are unrelated to hers. The joy of writing fiction is not to live in the past, but to live in your imagination.

So I would encourage all writers to go ahead and write that thinly veiled autobiographical novel. Do a mediocre job of it, stick it on a shelf, and then flex your fingers and get back to the keyboard. Write something beautiful and sensitive and above all, new.

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