What writers don't talk about
Until very recently I was a member of a writers’ group. This was not an online forum but a real flesh-and-blood group. We’d meet in each others’ flats, talk intensely about our work for two hours, then go down the pub and talk even more intensely.
We had been meeting every fortnight for about six years and it was a great group - intelligent, serious writers, all different enough not to be directly competitive, all mature enough to take and give hard criticism. We’d do line-by-line analysis, talk about style and character, about point-of-view and tense, about description and dialogue and structure but there was one thing we studiously avoided: what the books were actually about.
The questions we should have asked but didn’t were - just why do you want to write this story? What’s it really about? Is this a story anybody wants to hear?
And here’s the thing that was so obvious none of us could quite see it: we were all writing about adjusted or disguised versions of ourselves. In some cases this was a character similar to the author sent on a fantasy journey. A shy man who worked in IT wrote a thriller about an IT worker who got drawn into violent crime. A retired, happily married teacher wrote a comedy about a unhappily married teacher. A woman who travelled to Colombia for work wrote about a woman who travelled to Colombia for escape, but transposed back 80 years. I wrote a satire about a dissolute writer set in the near future searching for something to believe in.
Then there is that curious phenomenon - the quasi-autobiographical novel where the story is very close to one lived by the author, but the central character is modified to stop it being a memoir.
Four or five fledging novels immediately spring to mind. A writer in our group was writing a story based on her formative years as an anthropologist living with an African tribe. It was a fascinating story, mirroring her real experience episode by episode, but she wanted the central character to be someone else. She avoided the real centre of the story - a young middle class feminist, fascinated by a romantic culture totally alien to her own who had an affair with a young tribesman - to write an account of a marginalised community’s struggle for land rights.
Another writer was working on a novel closely based on her on experience of a love affair with a man who disappeared into a country undergoing great political upheaval. Yet her own character, which should have been the emotional centre, was the weakest in the whole story. Perhaps in these quasi-autobiographies the central character becomes an observer rather than a participant because the author is so preoccupied with recounting what happened, he or she forgets a story needs to be driven by the protagonist’s desires. Perhaps it is just easier to write about others than it is to write about ourselves.