When I read back on something that my younger self wrote I'm often surprised at the insight. Not writing like this. I'm sure I will read back and feel the opposite. But fiction. Because when I used to write I used to believe I could say it was from another place, not from me, not real - I could embrace any voice, any idea, any point of view. And my surprise is that I often explored ideas I was yet to grow into or understand. And because it was fiction, I just put that finished product aside, like a newly baked cake, for others to consume as they wished, without really further analysing the contents except from the point of view of whether it worked or not.
That is not to say that you know where the ideas are coming from, even if they come from within. Friends of mine who are musicians, say, singers, rather than your run of the mill writer, have noticed the same thing; the song they wrote and loved at 17, loathed at 21, and reclaimed at 26 - their 26 year old self looking at the 17 year old self in wonder: How in the name of the Gods and the various intellects did I know that at that age and stage? and if I did know that at that age and stage, then why in the hell didn't I apply it? I could have saved myself a whole lot of misery. But then they would have had nothing to write about to look back on in future times. Capiche?
The thing is, most creative people are creative people because they thrive on their own insecurity. They don't necessarily know where that insecurity stems from, or how to express the feelings it invokes, so they channel it through their art. The hairs of my paintbrush are thick and I am coating everyone with the same gunky hue, but why are so many of the artistic bent and fucked up? Because they are bent and fucked up, and the arts gives them a voice, maybe the only means of expressing themselves. However, that too is a cliche. I know a million and one (well, not quite, I don't know half the population of Oman just yet) of those in some form of the arts, and they lead perfectly happy lives. That's not to say they were happy when they first delighted in and explored their fields. Do I know anguished accountants? Not so much, though I am sure they exist. I wonder if they entered accountancy as a way to deal with that anguish. Maybe. Numbers can be reassuring in their seeming wholeness. The non-anguished, from whichever walk of life, are a much easier lot to deal with.
Even though my contention is that any creative work produced is autobiographical, if anyone has ever written anything of length, it remains that you often do not know where it is going to go. A friend of mine was so disappointed that one of her characters had to have a stalker, but that is the way the story ended up writing itself, and she had to follow. Still, she wrote it. It came from her, whether she knew where it was going, or not. I saw Richard Flanagan, the author of Death of a River Guide and the Sound of One Hand Clapping, speak at an event put on at a bookshop where I used to work, many years ago. He had just released Gould's book of Fish, a beautiful book in different coloured print with coloured plates, I think. Also, here . I acquired (given or bought? sometimes my boss was generous) a hand cut, hardback, I suppose first and maybe limited edition. I'm not sure if the paperback had the different coloured text. It wouldn't have had hand cut pages.
A male friend of mine (Ozymandias) had read the Sound of One Hand Clapping, which was also made into a movie with the wonderful New Zealand actress, Kerry Fox (Flanagan directing), and he was surprised that it was a male who had written it as he found the woman's voice (the main character) so convincing. I am never surprised by this. The idea seems to be expressed in the words of the unimaginative who say we cannot write or draw in the guise of others. Yet, maybe that is my white corporate male oppression (thanks Kool thing) shining through. Was Elizabeth Durack wrong to paint in an Aboriginal style under a pseudonym? Given where she grew up and her connection to the land, I am not sure. Given that belonging is oftentimes a matter of identification, I'm again, not so sure. But then, is Helen Darville another matter? Considering she made up a whole persona to go with her Miles Franklin award winning book and it greatly affected the authenticity and topic of that book, and others, I'm not certain that her actions were not without harm.
At his talk, Richard said that Flannery O'Connor had said that everything she wrote she'd learnt by the age of eight. Now, I might have the quote wrong, or the age. The Internet says anyone who survived childhood, which is a different creature. However, I (politely) challenged Richard on this. My students, in their early twenties or late teens, were producing great stuff with all kinds of points of view. Yet their characters were often old, but my students were not. Their characters had all kinds of jobs, yet many of my students didn't yet work. And they oftentimes wrote tight, sharp, sordid tales, but for the most part, their lives were not debauched. Richard could write in a female voice, yet he was male. He probably had not consciously experienced being female at any point of his life, though I think gender is a lot more fluid than we allow it to be. Flannery O'Connor's opinions of those who teach creative writing are well known, or easily googled, so I won't dwell. Yet, I think my point remains. And what was my point? That you don't actually know all that you can know by the age of eight. How is it possible? There must be some other form of connection, because the writing is often believable.
Richard Flanagan liked the question in the way that enquiring minds might (how I flatter myself). He was one of those Oxford scholars, a Rhodes Scholar. A brilliant and interesting life before he had even turned the corner of his mid-twenties. He claimed that fiction could be universal - some observer I am, I can only remember the gist of what he said. That it could tell universal truth, perhaps? Encapsulate the essence of life? Perhaps. I do allude to that in the Astrid Lindgren post, or the Astrid Lindgren memorial people do. Maybe the truth is the Buddhist one that we are everyone, and that we have been here many a time before. Therefore we could know everything at 8, 18, and 28. We could have been all types of people and all types of things. Neurologically, maybe there are many pathways that are totally unexplored, ego permeability not being easily induced or studied. There are, however, points when words, sentences, phrases, paragraphs merge with the page, fully formed. I still tend to think they come from within, but that is not to say that my within is not connected to the without.
Some friends of mine have beliefs in ephemeral things, spirits guiding and directing. Funny, the same friends have trouble with concepts such as higher selves. (Higher shelves are okay, however, as long as they have a ladder, a frog, a mouse, and a summer's day). Higher self, which I don't necessarily think is the opposite of base self, makes sense to me. Maybe it is just the super-ego, but with a bit more id mixed in, and a little less repression. I never really give credit for what I do to someone else, yet, that is not to say that I totally understand what I do, when I do it, if I do it; nor exactly where it stems from within me, nor if the within me is responding to something, tangible, or otherwise, from without, or outside of me.
Later we lined up and Richard Flanagan patiently signed Gould's Book of Fish (I wonder what other adjectives could be used there? Hurriedly. Bad Tempered-ly. Dexterously). I had bought it for my father's birthday (I must have bought it referring back to my musing far above. What cheapskate would give him a copy received?). To Matthew*, father of questioning, quixotic Rose*, he wrote, and something else that this maybe chemically spirited mind has forgotten (diet coke will do that to you). I have trouble with historical fiction, though it seems to be an area Australian authors, such as Peter Carey, have excelled in, not that they have lived in the era. Really, it is just that there is so little tangible struggle for most people in day to day life in Australia. History is one of the few places that still contains hardship and conflict. I'm waving that thick paintbrush around again. Still, even though the books are historical, it is still about the writers. It has to be. Not overtly so. But it came from you, it must be a part of you. Or you a part of it. And anyone who says otherwise isn't spinning fiction from fact.
*Names have been changed to protect and exalt the ordinary. And I have no problem with the ordinary. Unlike Mena Suvari in American Beauty. Though I think that might have been the point.