I Once Had a Brain
I rarely post anything truly scholarly on this blog--no reviews or in-depth analysis of books. But I've been scrolling through some of the annotations I wrote for graduate school--short analyses of the books we read--and essays and the like and I came across a few that I thought might be worthy of posting here.
Today I'll start with a condensed essay version of the 22 page lecture I wrote and then had to deliver as my parting graduate requirement while in the MFA program at Bennington. This version of the essay is only 5 pages--so don't fret, and I think it covers a topic that can be of use to some writers.
The essay was titled "Writing Towards the Buried Sun" and I'll leave that title for the essay, too:
by Jordan E. Rosenfeld
From the first moment I heard the phrase “Write what you know” I’ve despised it. It bothers me especially because I’m a fiction writer, which, I’ve always believed, gives me license to make things up from whole cloth. I even find myself offended when I hear someone ask an author, “How much of that novel is true?” The fiction writer, in my view, never has to reveal that so much of a syllable of one’s work is derived from fact.
But after reading all five novels by author Jean Rhys and undergoing the incisive, occasionally humiliating process of an MFA writing program, I realized something troubling: I have been writing what I know all along; I’ve just been doing it blindly, or worse, in denial.
For starters, “what you know” does not have to be synonymous with what actually happened in your life; it is rather the amalgam of your influences, artistic and realistic, and yes, your life experiences.
I like the perspective of Albert Camus who writes in the introduction to his book Lyrical and Critical Essays, “Every artist is undoubtedly pursuing his truth. If he is a great artist, each work brings him nearer to it, or at least, swings still closer toward this center, this buried sun where everything must one day burn.”
We bring what we know to our writing either intentionally or because it seeps up through the cracks. If you write by denial, your writing runs the risk of being cluttered by this unexamined material of the self.
We must get to know the contents of our creative subconscious so that it can be transformed from the slippery, unknown stuff of life into art, or at the least, entertainment.
Jean Rhys learned to be a master of this. She was up front that her fiction came directly from her life but she was also exacting about getting things artistically right—conveying a universal authenticity to people and events.
As writers, our work is very close to us, but as I learned, sometimes a lot closer than we think. My writing, I discovered, was rife with frustrated parents and their angry children who seemed to be waiting for cues on how to behave differently. I’m confident that all writers suffer from some version of this. So join me in admitting that you, too, are in denial. There is at least one, possibly a few, themes you simply can’t exorcise from your writing. If not a theme, it’s a character, an image or a setting that you can’t shake. We’re not alone; great writers suffer from this same tendency.
Critics have written that all the female protagonists in Rhys’ work form a “composite heroine.” This heroine reduced to her basic parts is a solitary underdog who is usually haunted by memories of her country of origin—which is always somewhere warm and tropical like Rhys’s own homeland in the West Indies. This heroine has, for whatever reason, transplanted herself into a cold, foreign climate, usually England or France. She, in all her incarnations, is always at the mercy of her quickly-shifting moods and dependent upon men, emotionally, as well as financially, and often quite resentful of this fact. Though these women by today’s standards would probably be clinically depressed, through Rhys’ filter, they never see themselves this way. Their misery is perhaps their only true comfort.
Rhys did not have the luxury of an MFA program, though she certainly had mentors. She was the kind of writer who taught herself the craft of novel writing by writing novels. She learned the appropriate distance a fiction writer must take on her own experiences by trial and error, five novels’ worth, before writing her Magnum Opus, Wide Sargasso Sea.
Like Rhys, I too have some composite characters. The first I call the Absent Father. He makes his debut in one of my earliest stories, written at the age of ten, called "The Valley in My Room." While this is a child’s writing, it’s also proof that my thematic preoccupations started early. In this story, the main character, Vanessa, discovers a hole in her floor that leads to a green valley below. Her mother falls into this hole and Vanessa undertakes a journey to rescue her. It's a very complicated, sophisticated story for a ten year-old if I do say so myself. By the end, after Vanessa has survived impossible trials, fought an evil "lord," and saved her mother, what becomes of her poor father, left behind?
I wrote, "Vanessa's father always had a memory of a tall woman and a dark-haired child in his mind, though he never knew why."
Dad doesn’t even so much as get an honorary set of fairy wings.
During graduate school I was frequently asked by workshop participants and teachers alike, questions of this kind: “Why does the father walk away at the crucial moment of conflict?” “What has her father done, exactly?” “The father is so flat, why don’t you just get rid of him?”
Well, I’d never given those questions deep enough thought. These fathers were just walk-ons, I thought, saying their lines, or being the object of another character’s longing or frustration, only to disappear again.
The foundation for this Absent Father was set way back in the creative landscape of my childhood, part imagination, part experience. I kept this poor Father waiting in the wings of my writing until I realized that the only rightful thing to do was to drive him off a cliff in his fast mid-life crisis car or give him his shot to prove that he was better and more than I’d allowed him.
Becoming aware of my recurring character did not magically subtract him from my fiction. In some instances, his absences just gained complexity. I attempted to trick myself that if he was absent in new ways, or for longer periods of time, or for more unique reasons, his absence would contribute something meaningful. Eventually I had to resort to actually deepening these fathers.
But just when I had gotten a grip on the fact that my fathers were absent, in working with my final graduate mentor, writer Alice Mattison, I discovered a whole other blind spot. Alice wrote the following to me in a letter about my thesis collection:
“After I read two or three [of your stories] I thought, “Well, she can give the book the title “Bad Mothers”…Most of these mothers are unrelieved: they aren’t complex, they are just awful. I don’t mind that sort of horrible character in general—I don’t think every single character needs to be complex—but so many bad characters…with no good traits…of the same category makes the work add up to a scream of rage about mothers…”
Though she quickly went on to reassure me that she would not extrapolate this out into my own unresolved personal issues and was sure I had a very nice mother, I was nailed. I’d been hiding behind my Absent Fathers only to learn the hard way that I’d let my Bad Mothers get completely out of control.
Later, Alice wrote,
“What you need is for your reader to be able to take each story on its own terms instead of being so struck by the pervasiveness of the bad mothers that they become a theme instead of just being part of the subject matter.”
Alice was right. In order for the writer to get to the place where the stories stand on their own terms and don’t rest on their thematic laurels, a lot of close scrutiny at the work as a whole is necessary. There is powerful energy in the themes and characters that compel us as writers, but that energy can just as likely clutter our work as empower it.
Fortunately writing is not heart surgery, though on bad days, it can feel like it. A writer has the option of returning to the work and taking the path not taken.
So, though I am no more inclined now to strictly write about present fathers and good mothers any more than Rhys was to write about happy women who find love and return to their tropical paradises, I confess that these fathers and mothers have been unfairly under-explored and it turns out that they have feelings too, and quirks and longings and unfulfilled desires. In doing this, I’ve come to an intersection between what I know, and what I can imagine. Now when they appear these characters are just road signs pointing, “Go deeper here; don’t give up there.”
For those of us haunted or compelled by a particular theme or character that simply won’t go away, by diving directly into that material and being brutally honest with what we find there, we have the opportunity to strengthen it or be free from it, to get to know what it is we do really know, aesthetically, artistically, and write from the center of ourselves, toward Camus’ “buried sun”—our own unique, creative truths.