Friday, March 12, 2010

Self-Therapy Through Writing Fiction

A friend once told me people could see a lot of herself in her writing. I nodded and said quite quickly, "Yes, it seems all my characters are me. Don't you feel the same way?" She said "no," they were new people she'd invented and they weren't like her at all. I said, "Oh," and that was the end of that, but still it kind of bothered me. I instantly thought, "Am I doing it wrong?" Since that time I've told myself, of course not. There's no one way to write, I know that. But still, I had to ask, are my ideas too shallow that they only extend to my own memories and experiences? Am I that self-centered? Am I not thinking outside the box?
Perhaps we were misunderstanding each other, perhaps not, but when I said my characters are me, what I meant was I could see myself in all of them. They are created deep inside of me. They share feelings I've felt, they come from how I've perceived people, and I've endowed them with characteristics I've noticed in the world around me.
My husband always says the faults we notice in others are actually the faults we ourselves have. That's how it is with fictional characters. And sometimes I don't even know it's about me, until months later when it strikes me, or my husband says, "That's so you."
Today I read in the book I'm reading, Characters & Viewpoints by Orson Scott Card, "...No less distorted is your memory of yourself--what you did, what you meant to do, what caused you to do things, what the results of your actions turned out to be. Yet, distorted or not, your memory of yourself is the clearest picture you will ever have of what a human being is and why people do what they do. You are the only person you will ever know from the inside, and so, inevitably, when your fiction shows other characters from the inside, you will reveal yourself."
"This will happen unconsciously, whether you plan it or not. Sometimes it will startle, even embarrass you when you look back on a story you've written and suddenly realize how much you have confessed without even meaning to."
I've experienced this again and again in my own writing. When I go back to read what I've written sometimes days or months later I suddenly see for the first time I've written about an experience as a teenager, or the love I feel for my children, or resentment or a grudge I've never forgotten. I didn't even think about it while writing it, but still it was there, and I felt those same feelings again and I put them on paper without even realizing it. I often think writing is like dreaming. It all comes out on the paper, without you even thinking about putting it there.
Sure, they're new people, doing new things, but there is a piece of me in them. Even the villain. I'm not perfect. I've yelled at my kids before. I've experienced anger and frustration, vanity, obsessions. Maybe not to the same degree my character is, but enough that it allows me to imagine what it would be like. Those same feelings are what allow us as readers to relate to the characters, even if they are chopping up people to bits.
This is probably one reason why we like to read too. We want to experience those same feelings again. Sweet romances full of bitter jealousy bring us back to the days when we were hauling Caboodles onto the bus, spiking our bangs and driving the junior high guys wild... (Ahem-ahem, what was I saying about revealing embarrassing memories through writing? Scary.) Watching movies isn't the same. It's watching someone else's story. When you read a book you become that person and you get to live out another life. It's the ultimate "virtual reality game."
[That was my plug for reading books. =) ]
Card says "The danger of delving into your own memory is that you've only lived one life. You're going to keep coming up with the same incidents and attitudes over and over again, without even realizing it...the way a child will keep picking at the same sore. You have to make a conscious effort to keep from remembering the same things in the same way."
Something I noticed a long time ago about myself, which could drive someone crazy (like my husband), is I'm always looking back. I find correlations in my life which could account for possible decisions I made later on, and it brings new light and meaning to those memories.
Cheap entertainment, psycho-analyzing yourself. Unless it makes you so utterly depressed you need medication and real therapy....
I love analyzing people and why they do things. But unconsciously we all use ourselves as a gauge to understand others. I use what I've learned in my own life, and that always changes as I grow and mature. How I perceive my memories changes with that. So, in that way, our own thoughts and memories actually have a deep well to draw from, because each memory has layers: how we viewed it at the time, how we saw it a bit later, and how we feel about it now--the good, the bad, the ugly.
You can also rewrite history. I can take some of those experiences I've had, put all the heartache, disappointment out there, and then have a different outcome. Or somehow come to peace with it, without it ever being even remotely the same situation or experience. Sometimes I discover through writing things about myself that I never consciously knew. It really is like going to a psychiatrist, but much cheaper.

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