I used to rap students on the knuckles for it (figuratively, of course)- the tendency to confuse an author’s fictional world with his or her private life. Time and time again I’d hear how thoughtful and kind someone must be if they wrote about redemption and love. Conversely, students would curse a writer whose stories presented a worldview that was bleak or pessimistic. I’d gently remind them that it was a writer’s job to imagine new things, to be true to their characters even if they didn’t walk the same path as them, to follow a plot line to its logical conclusion even if it pained them to do so. I spoke of famous children’s writers who couldn’t stand kids in real life, political revolutionaries whose uprising on paper starkly contrasted their own quiet existence, romance writers who preferred their own quaint love lives to the tumultuous ones of the characters they portrayed. In my class, we respected the right of an author to not share every detail of their everyday reality in the pages of their books.
Here’s the part where I backpedal a little. Since my teaching days, I’ve met a lot of writers, and done a whole lot of writing myself, and I can tell you, the walls between what a writer lives and what a writer writes are thinner than I thought. True, you can be a science fiction genius without actually travelling through time and space. You can produce marvelous historical fiction without having lived through an event. I’d wager many young adult fiction writers haven’t been a young adult for quite a while. But if you read carefully enough, beyond the superficial details of a story, you’ll see them there. You can’t write about the distant future without being curious and concerned about it. You can’t capture what happened in the past without having an opinion about it. If you write for young people, you need to wake up the snoring, dusty younger version of you for advice. And all of this is okay. A little injection of one’s own philosophy makes one’s writing genuine and authentic.
What’s surprising to me is that writers also like to dish about themselves in real life. True, there are a few hermits still out there (J.D. Salinger, please stand up), but in this age of digital confessionals, most wordsmiths aren’t allowed to put anything on a bookstore shelf without at least making an appearance online. Just like everyone else on the planet, they’re expected to share their own story. People want to know a bit about the mind that came up with this or that, and from what I’ve seen, a lot of writers are happy to share. All of this is okay too. If it’s your job to tell stories, if it’s what you spend hours every day doing, it’s difficult to stop when the laptop is closed and the notebook is back on the shelf.
A little while ago, I heard author Wayson Choy speak at a conference, and he argued that we write because we think what we have to say is important, and based on what I’ve seen of writers, I have to agree. We think it’s so important that we stay up all night finishing it, bug our friends to read it over for us, and we talk about it to anyone who’ll listen. We send it out to strangers in the hope that they’ll think it’s important enough to publish it. We tweet about it, blab about it on Facebook, and yes, even blog about it (ooosh, just got kind of meta in here).
In a way, writers are kind of like that stranger at the bus stop who, in the time it takes to wait for the uptown express, manages to describe their appendectomy in gory detail. We’re the nervous person at a party who doesn’t know what else to say, and confesses that they never really learned to tell time properly. We’re the guys who belch out loud at the office and then realize there are people in earshot. Writers can’t help ourselves. We have to blab or we’ll explode. Thankfully, we make it our business to make our blabbing sound intelligent, to use interesting turns of phrases, and to organize it into manageable chunks. Most of our real lives aren’t the stuff of action/adventure fiction, but we dress up our experiences and mindsets so that they’re a little more exciting.
To those who indulge us in our oversharing, maybe even enjoy it a little, thank you. If any of my former students are reading this and you remember a lesson such as the ones mentioned above, well…um…er, did I ever tell you about…