When asked why I write and what I write--how I find my own richest material--I look to my obsessions, (yup, I've got plenty), what disturbs me, what keeps me up at night, what I can't stop thinking about. If the story, image, memory, or voice makes me flinch, well, it's like a compass, I go there, I don't let myself shy away. I know I'm onto something.
I believe we as writers often shy away from our richest material. Why? It makes us uncomfortable, embarrassed, we worry about what Mom might think.
The outstanding author Nadine Gordimer said, "Write as if you are dead." I think I may understand what she is getting at here. At least, I have my own take on it: If you write as if you're dead, you're set free. You need not worry about what Mom or anyone else will say or think. You will be on the path to creating work that has depth and layers, that is true.
Good writing does disturb, burrows in, lingers. The purpose of art is not necessarily to shroud us in warmth and comfort like an enveloping blanket. Ironically, though, even dark work can be enlivening if it is honest, beautifully written, and powerful.
Okay, I'll get off the soapbox.
Writing fiction is solitary, sometimes it's painful. My first novel, Can You See Me? centres on a brother and sister so close, they share a secret place and private language. When the brother, Doren, goes mad, (no euphemisms here), Sarah struggles to save him, help her brother without going under herself. How do you help a loved one, without becoming merged with that person? I realize long after the writing that my book poses this question.
Okay, yes, connect the dots if you must. I, like Sarah, have a beloved sibling who fell prey to schizophrenia as a young man. But in my novel, I ask the question: what is it like to be Doren, to have schizophrenia, and I imagine into Doren's point-of-view, voice, secret world. The writing of this novel was not only an act of imagination, it was, I hope, an act of empathy. Getting inside Doren's head was truely a scary place to go, and I often wondered if I could come out the other side, but I did so, stronger for the journey. I hope that the dual point-of-view of this book, brother and sister alternating their voices, makes the novel a richer read.
To write my latest work, The White Space Between, I needed to get inside the painful traumatic world of both a Holocaust survivor and her artist daughter, barely balancing on the tightrope between remembering and forgetting. If you remember, how do you become whole, go forward, avoid being paralyzed by a traumatic past. If you forget, erase, how do you know who you are, where you came from. How can you forge an identity with so many white spaces between. Not only for yourself, but for your children and your grandchildren. This legacy of the Holocaust is a part of who we are, no matter how painful.
Some historians claim there are no survivors of the Holocaust, if to survive means to come through unscathed.
Let's look at the word: survive, take it apart. "sur"-over "vive" to live. We've come through the experience as survivors and children of survivors and grandchildren, but we must live this experience over and over and over and over and never forget to remember.
Talk to me, write to me. Share your thoughts.