I write YA fantasy and science fiction. I write it for what strikes me as the only possible reason: I like to read it. I feel there are not enough books like LeGuin’s Earthsea, Beagle’s Last Unicorn, or McKinley’s Beauty in the world, and it is my ambition to write more of them.
But writing F/SF does have some fringe benefits too. One of them is that if you write about talking cats and the restless dead and our robot overlords, no one asks you which parts are autobiographical. Which is good, because the answer is: it’s complicated.
For instance, in the last few days, my writing has paused, as my emotional life has spun out of control for reasons that I won’t get into here. For the purposes of telling this story, you just need to know that ten days ago a familiar disaster began to roll up and crest over my family. We guessed it was just a matter of time before that wave broke.
While waiting to be smashed against the rocks, I wrote two chapters in which my character, Greta, was under unbearable stress, waiting for a terrible thing to happen to her. Finally I wrote the bit where it did happen, and at this point in my book, Greta is emotionally crushed, numb, and is not sure what to do next. Ah, Greta: I know the feeling.
Part of this is just the work-a-day miracle of fiction, the thing that allows us to write about, and read about, people other than ourselves, and be moved by their stories. The mind builds the wheel of the plot, but the heart must turn it. I feel fear and pain; I know how they feel. Greta feels fear and pain; I know how she feels; I create it on the page, and then (I hope) you know how she feels too.
Caption: Portrait of Greta Gustafsen Stuart, Duchess of , Crown Princess of the PanPolar Confederacy, and Blood Hostage to Four: She’ll Feel Better Soon (actually a piece of art I bought entitled Jeune Fille Avec Fleurs, by Image Studios of Montreal.)
To make this work, my pain does not have to be the same as Greta’s, and neither does yours. Neither does either of us need to be in pain right this moment, though it happens that I am. The miracle is that I, the writer, can reach into the page with my life, and you, the reader, can reach out to the page with your life, and together we can conjure this new life, this fictional soul, Greta, and be moved along with her.
So far, what I’m talking about is miraculous and mystical, but routine. I would bet (and hope) that the most jaded, plot-driven, hack writer out there (you know, me, on Tuesdays) has a drop or two of faith in fiction as miracle.
But let me tell you what’s strange. I outlined Children of Peace — Greta’s book — months ago. I knew she was going to wait to be destroyed, and then be destroyed. It was pure coincidence that the moment of my writing it corresponded so tellingly to the moment I felt it in my own life.
Another instance, more dramatic: In Plain Kate, I wrote a story about the death of a sister by drowning and violence, and had nearly finished it when I lost my sister to drowning and violence.
It was before Wendy died that I created Linay and his lost sister, built the whole wheel of a novel that spins around grief — Linay’s for his sister, Drina’s for her mother, Kate’s for her father, on and on. And yet I myself had never had cause to grieve in this way. But having written the first two thirds of the book, built the wheel, I certainly found I had a lot of heart’s blood with which to turn it. And yet, I didn’t write it autobiographically, or to expiate …
Sometimes I have felt as if I conjure things in real life to put into books. I do not mean I cause them; I feel no responsibility for them. I do not even mean that I foreknow them or forefeel them, though that is closer. What I mean (and now you should hand me my tinfoil hat) is that I was drawn to writing what I did — given that writing to do — because I was going to need it.
Given by whom? Ah, that’s not answerable. My tradition coaches me to start talking about the Holy Spirit, but I’ve found that people back away when I start.
This is not something I can write about with any authority or certainty. It is not something I’ve studied deeply. (I should, for instance, go read Jung’s essay on Synchronicity, which Wendy thrust at me every time I got going on this theme, and which I’ve never finished.) But it is something real: of that I’m convinced. I have heard it reported too often, by too many different writers, to dismiss it easily.
And right now, today, while I wonder how to pick up the pieces and what to do, I also find my character numb and shut down. I look at how her disaster has shattered the outline of the rest of the book: surely I need to throw that away, and find a new path. I have begun to glimpse the path of the book, and Greta’s path; it is beautiful and whole and exciting. And so will my life be again, insha’Allah, someday soon.
For writers and for readers, a take-away lesson:
-Readers, don’t ask writers where they get their ideas. Seriously, you might get a glimpse of a whirling vortex of insanity that you need special training to handle.
-Writers, consider comedy.
BIO: Erin Bow is the author of Plain Kate, a Russian-flavored fairytale novel for young adults, which happens to contain the least Disney-fied talking cat in all of literature. She lives in Kitchener Ontario, with her hubby (and fellow YA writer) James Bow, and their two little girls. Erin cooks, reads fairy tales, and is learning to play African drums. Our robot overlords can’t make heads or tails of her.
Description of Plain Kate:
In a market town by a looping river there lived an orphan girl called Plain Kate ….Plain Kate lives in a world of superstitions and curses, where a song can heal a wound and a shadow can work deep magic. As the wood-carver’s daughter, Kate held a carving knife before a spoon, and her wooden talismans are so fine that some even call her “witch-blade”: a dangerous nickname in a country where witches are hunted and burned in the square.For Kate and her village have fallen on hard times. Kate’s father has died, leaving her alone in the world. And a mysterious fog now covers the countryside, ruining crops and spreading fear of hunger and sickness. The townspeople are looking for someone to blame, and their eyes have fallen on Kate.Enter Linay, a stranger with a proposition: In exchange for her shadow, he’ll give Kate the means to escape the angry town, and what’s more, he’ll grant her heart’s wish. It’s a chance for her to start over, to find a home, a family, a place to belong. But Kate soon realizes she can’t live shadowless forever — and that Linay’s designs are darker than she ever dreamed.
I’m giving one lucky person my ARC of the book (read only once and in perfect condition!)
Open to US/Canada only.
Must be 13 or older to enter
Ends July 5th, 2011
Tell us, does your real life experiences make it into your fictional stories? If you’re not a writer tell us what you think is one of the most relaxing things to do to clear your mind (driving, taking a bath, taking a walk… those are a few of mine, just to give you an idea.) Remember to leave contact info!