Friday, May 8, 2009

Can I Tell You a Secret?

A writer writes because she's got something in her craw. Why else would she return to the same motifs story after story after story? And writers do.

I was aware that both my novels were about women who'd run off to secluded houses to be alone. Bonnie pointed out they are also about women whose husbands are dead. (That is a worry, but I promise you, I adore my husband.) A reader suggested they are all about crazy, wild, bohemian women. (Hmmm...)

I take comfort knowing I'm not the only one who does this. In Writing Towards Wisdom: the Writer as Shaman, Robert Burdette Sweet reminds us:
"After all what Hawthorne did was write guilt, guilt, guilt, guilt. And Kafka did write father, punishment, father, father, father and Hemingway did growl cowardice, courage, cowardice, cowardice."
My hunch is that a good novel is the pearl that emerges from the pain that's worked its way into the writers inner life.

In Alone With All That Could Happen, David Jauss suggests that fiction is a lie told in the interest of truth:
"Writing about the secret life is not, then, a matter of revealing actual secrets but of distorting and altering them, consciously or unconsciously, so they tell a larger kind of truth. If you simply reveal a secret-- tell the god's honest truth about it-- you may in fact tell a lie about your real, inner life. At the very least, you will be false to the primary characteristic of the secret, which is that it is secret."
In her excellent blog, My Family Secrets (where you can anonymously post your own), Mary Demuth writes, "In Daisy Chain, many characters harbor secrets, but only a few are brave enough to bring them to the light of day and find freedom and hope." I'm glad there are writers like Mary who are brave enough to obey Emily Dickinson who told us to "Tell All the Truth but tell it slant," so as to offer comforting, hopeful fellowship to her readers.

What about you? Have you noticed recurring themes in the writing of a favorite author? How have your own secrets added power to your fiction?


Jane Lebak said...

My subconscious sublimates the issues I'm grappling with into the very very sublayers of the story. I usually discover this when I get to the end and it won't resolve, and then I have to dig to figure out what the story is REALLY about.

But it's never clear at all. Just for example, one story about an inner city priest was actually about me feeling like I'd set aside my writing for motherhood. Once I had that key, the story resolved itself as neatly as if I'd never had an issue in the first place.

Stories that have the author's problems right on the surface are like therapy. But really deep fiction is wrestling with the questions we're not always able to articulate for ourselves, and that adds richness and depth, plus an added means for our readers to connect with the characters.

Noosner said...

Hi Kate
Great stuff. A friend once told me she thought all my work was about the search for home. Ten years on, I'm still mulling it over...

Patti Hill said...

My stories tend to have dysfunctional mothers in them, and I have a wonderful mother. I'm still trying to figure this twist out as I'm starting another novel with a mother issue in it.


Maybe it's MY mothering skills that are the problem. You'll have to excuse me. I seem to have opened a can of worms.

Seriously, writing is the best therapy available, if you're honest enough to slant it.

Janet said...

I think it's strange how Kathleen and Patti seem to have recurring motifs that don't fit their lives. Are they symbols of something else? Or are they fascinated by circumstances outside their own lives?

I almost deliberately created an protagonist that was completely different from myself: a young, tall, dark, lean, laconic man brought up as an adept of witchcraft. None of this "the first novel is always an autobiography" stuff for me.

And then I did the enneagram quiz for personality types and discovered that under the skin, we were much the same person: obsessed with knowledge and truth and principle. And I suspect that will be a commonality in my books too, although I'm going to have to write a couple more before we can draw conclusions.

So, Kathleen, are those common elements going to carry over into the next book? Or are you going to make a conscious effort to break the mold? If you succeed as badly as I did, we could have a lot of fun digging for the hidden common threads.

ConnieBrz said...

Houses hold deep meaning that I can't quite articulate (might explain taking on a rehab and renovation business--taking something decaying and useless and bringing back home, family and life.)

Again and again, I come back to the picture of two people living side by side and finding-- something. It's the something that keeps me writing.

But what *it* is, escapes me. . .

Patti Hill said...

OOH, you are asking such good questions. And Janet, I thought I'd broken away from the dysfunctional mother thing in my next book, Seeing Things, but I, well, developed a difficult daughter-in-law/stepmother as an antagonist. Geesh!

Now, I do work through other issues in my writing that sometimes surprise me. For instance, the whole issue of suffering. I thought I had that one all figured out. Didn't. My story made me get upfront and personal with Jesus to work that out for my character and for me.

I tell my writing students that writing fiction is like becoming a flasher. If your writing isn't strictly autobiographical, it is still a window into your mind.

My, my, that's a scary thought.

Kathleen Popa said...

Yes, you are asking good questions. Janet, it seems to me (and to the brilliant David Jauss) that the more personal a story is, the more universal. Oddly, it wasn't till after my first novel was published that it dawned on me just how personal the story was. It took some getting used to, but I've come to think that it's my job, this veiled unveiling of the inner life.

As to the husband thing, it strikes me I'm not alone in this. Note how very many protagonists are widowed or divorced. Perhaps, like dreams, it has more to do with our fears than our realities. Also we authors love to kick the props out from under our poor characters, and a spouse is a very big support. So we arrange our little accidents and heart attacks.

Noosner, Connie: What is it about houses, home?

Lori Benton said...

This subject in a continues to fascinate me, and I enjoy reading the reoccurring themes other writers find in their work.

I can't seem to get away from father/son themes in my stories. Most of the time it's the prodigal son scenario, but not always. Sometimes the relationship is healthy, respectful, loving, yet in those cases the father is deceased, and the son doesn't see himself as living up to the example his father set (this is just occurring to me as I type!), even though he is doing so, in ways that others can see.

I'm neither a father, nor a son. I don't have children. Where is this coming from? I never set out to create the scenario, but by the time I finish a story, there it is again, in some form.

Lori Benton said...

Ugh. Forgive the many typos in the previous post. I think I'm done for today!

Janet said...

I definitely agree that the more personal, the more universal. Human beings don't have that many deep preoccupations, after all.

You're also right about the idea of widowhood not being wish fulfillment, but perhaps a deep fear. Or at least a major challenge. We do our best growing when we are forced to rise to a challenge, and suddenly facing life more or less alone is a massive challenge, and one that many, many people face sooner or later. There's a lot of room for resonance there. In the same way, a lot of children's books deal with kids being thrust into situations where the parents are not available for one reason or another. I don't think it's an anti-parent thing; just tapping into some primal fears.

To answer one of your original questions: Chaim Potok has an ongoing theme of father/son relationships, as well as one of old-school orthodoxy confronted with the modern world. He handles them wonderfully well, although I could wish for a larger role for women in his stories.

And I have no idea if any of my own secrets are showing up in what I write. I'm not putting them in deliberately and somebody else will probably have to point them out to me.

Anonymous said...

The dead spouse theme is to get around confronting divorce in CBA books--or at least that's my take.

I have seen themes in the five unpublished novels I've written--always one dead or missing parent, someone is grappling with a pregnancy, misunderstanding abounds in families and music threads its way through. Hmmmm.

I spent a year with a counselor and she was fascinated I was writing a novel and asked me to tell her the story--"sort of like dream therapy."

I was leery, the writing was going well . . . I told her the story. She took it apart and told me who all the characters were in my "real" life. I couldn't believe it: "I can't let anyone in my family read this!" But she then pushed me to explore the themes deeper, and more sagely, asked, "How do you want this story to end?"

Oooh. Good question. I changed the ending. :-) And then I let my sister-in-law read it. She didn't see a thing! :-)

Anonymous said...

Great post, Katy. Certainly gives us all something to think about when we see our own recurring themes.

Janet, I love Chaim Potok. Have you read Davita's Harp?

Janet said...

Sharon, no, not yet. So many books, so little time...

Anonymous, I have consciously modeled certain characters on people I know. I am certain they'll never be able to tell. I don't use the obvious things, like detailed physical description or a similar life history. But I do have them think, talk, and react in similar ways. Helps a lot in establishing voice, I find.