Monday, August 18, 2008

How Close is Too Close?

Question of the day: Have you ever wondered whether a novel topic is "too close to home?" I'm considering having my main character suffer from postpartum depression, which I had, but worry that my kids may someday read it and assume I am the character. Also, I'm afraid it may make it harder for me to separate myself and stay true to the character instead of trying to have her do what I would do (or did) in the situation. BUT, I also feel this is an important story to tell, and of course events would take a different turn than in my case.

This is a great a question, and one that I definitely feel that I can answer because I've written something that, indeed, in retrospect was too close. And that would be my initial book that never sold. Now, did it sell because it was too close or because it just plain wasn't good? I don't know, but I suspect that the two are probably connected.

Everyone says that you should "write what you know," and to a certain extent, I believe that this is true. I've found, for me personally, that I need to find the seed within my characters that I relate to - something within them that resonates with my own life - so that I can really get under their skin and minds. In Time of My Life, for example, I didn't have a difficult time how off-kilter I would feel if I had long days and no stimulation other than a newborn, and certainly, I could relate to having "what if" moments like Jillian. But - in both obvious and non-obvious ways - my life is really nothing like hers at all. So, in this sense, I'm close to my characters emotionally, but not circumstantially, and I think this is an important distinction. Here's why:

In my first book - that one which got me agented but ultimately never sold - I loosely based the circumstances about an explosive event that happened in my own life. Something a lot of first-timers do. I wrote the first half of it very quickly - it was easy, after all, since I already knew more or less what was going to happen to the characters, since these things had already happened to me. But then...uh...I needed to find a way to steer the characters into fictitious circumstances, because I couldn't make this an autobiography, and I got stuck. I was so caught up in my real life that I couldn't get out of it. So I stopped writing. Eventually (two years later!), I figured out how to sort of realistically take these characters down a different path, but you know what? Their choices never really rang true to me because all I had in the back of my head were the choices that I'd made in the same circumstances.

So I think the thing to do is select a circumstance about which you want to write and about which you have experience, but write around it, not about it. What I mean by that is, if you want to write about PPD, great, but don't put the character in the same situation that you were in. Change her marriage, change her job, change her pregnancy experience, change her relationship with her get the idea. Your emotional connection with your experience will still align you with the character - and ultimately result in honest, intimate writing - but you won't get bogged down with confusing your real life with hers.

Make sense? Readers, tell me though, how close is too close for you?


Amy Nathan said...

I understand too close. I started writing a memoir and brought it to a swift halt. Talk about close to home, it was home. I took bits of my thoughts and pieces of myself and others and turned them inside out to construct a novel. I learned that I could use a real emotion to write a fictitious scene. I do find that I am always comparing fiction to fact though, making sure fiction is palpable and believable. I have separated myself from the characters and still strive to determine what they would do, as opposed to what I would do.

Suzanne said...

Great thoughts on the dangers of making memoir out of fiction...

I have to admit, I think writing about the subject of PPD would actually make a very interesting novel, if you could not let it slip into memoir, but use the experience to make the ficiton more real.

Laurie said...

Your comments are closed on your next post, but the one about Publish America? Please tell your reader to be very very careful.

Start here:

There's an entire topic full of threads discussing issues people have had with Publish America.

There's also this post with more links:

I hope this helps...

Allison Winn Scotch said...

Thank you, Laurie! I fixed the comments glitch above.