Are fiction writers split in two, so that there is a Dr Jekyll side and a Mr Hyde side?
I read Anne R. Allen’s blog the other day and she said a wonderful thing about novelists. ‘Most writers,’ she wrote, ‘are shy, boring people who work in hidey-holes wearing old sweats day after day.’
So why is there a persistent myth that writers – especially fiction writers – are fascinating people who spend their days surrounded by leather-bound first editions, cigarette smoke and big thoughts, and on top of it all have a hotline to all things genuine and true?
Is this simply an illusion? Or could it be that those people who write fiction professionally are somehow split in two, so that there is a Dr Jekyll side and a Mr Hyde side, and the two parts must co-exist – however difficult that might be at times.
This may well mean that writing professionally is the beginning of a treacherous case of schizophrenia – but still, as a general rule, it is safe to say that what we call an ‘author’ is always cleverer and funnier than the private person behind the name. ‘Author’ has the right answers. ‘Author’ looks smart in photos and sounds fascinating in Facebook fan page posts. ‘Author’ is like the cool person you have always wanted to hang around with, because everything he or she has written is just so fascinating.
But – wait! Don’t invite your favourite author out for dinner yet, because what you’re going to meet is not the ‘author’, but the private person behind the label. The one who wears old pullovers day after day, just like Anne R. Allen mentioned. Or the one who makes beds and washes dishes in the morning, just before the writing day starts. Just before ‘author’ takes over. And when the day’s writing has been done and it’s time for more mundane things, such as taking the dog out or paying online bills – yes, then the ‘author’ goes on hibernating in the darkest recesses of your mind.
Let there be no mistake about it – I wrote Witchcraft Couture and Absolute Truth, For Beginners, but it wasn’t exactly me-me-me who wrote those books. No, it was the ‘author’ in me, that is, an odd ghost that lingers inside me and takes charge whenever serious writing is being done. Because, let’s face it, I don’t speak the way she writes. I don’t live the kind of lives she describes. I dare less, and dream less, and live less than she does. And still, we must live in the same body.
Which is not always easy. Because the author in me is just so much more determined than I am. What she wants, she usually gets.
Here are three most common cases of author/private person conflict:
1. You are roasting the potatoes for dinner, when suddenly the author cries inside your head that she has an idea for your fourth chapter. You must write it down – and you must write it down immediately. After a short argument you reluctantly agree to scribble down some phrases. Even if you know that by doing so you’ll ruin the dinner.
Result: You write down those words, only to delete them the next day. The potatoes are nearly black and a horrible smell of smoke hovers around the kitchen.
2. You’re having a big argument with your mother/friend/spouse. It’s one of those big fights where intimate things are being revealed and tearful promises are being made. And, then, all of a sudden, in the heat of that conversation, you feel an odd kind of detachment in your soul. The next thing you know your author side is in charge, observing the situation, coolly evaluating whether you could use the comment your mother/friend/spouse just said. Because it fits that third scene in your seventh chapter. Because it’s just the kind of comment you’ve been hunting for.
Result: You lose concentration and feel like a piece of trash. And later on you find out that the comment wouldn’t have worked in any case.
3. Your favourite blogger sends you a list of interview questions. One of them is to reveal the coolest and most fascinating thing that happened during your latest book launch tour. You cringe in terror, because nothing cool and fascinating happened during your book launch tour. Because usually nothing cool and fascinating happens to you, ever. If it did, you wouldn’t be a writer. You wouldn’t sit inside all day long thinking about worlds where cars can talk.
Result: You cry for the author in you, to help you out. Because she’s so much smarter than you – she’s the funny one, the limelight of the party. But it’s completely silent in your head. The author has gone napping. Or maybe she just doesn’t care. So you jot down a silly answer and hope no one realises that you’re a complete fake.
P.S. Want to know more about this precarious co-existence? Try Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead. A great read!