Friday, January 18, 2013

Ironies Abound

So in the interest of transparency, I should tell you that I'm graduating in May. I'm on the cusp of embracing my adulthood, taking responsibility for myself, and figuring out what these years of study are truly for. No pressure.
If any of you have followed this blog for a while or read my sidebar -->>>> you'll know that I rejected the idea of being a high school English teacher fairly early in my academic career. Last week, thanks to a number of factors, I settled on what I want to do when I graduate.
Ironically, the plan involves teaching (and oh, how my father teases about that). But not quite in the way most English majors do it. I've decided that I want to live abroad for the next few years and support myself by teaching English as a second language. I want to travel and write and unfortunately, that needs funds. Teaching ESL might be the way to it. I think that might be more enjoyable for me anyway. I won't be convincing bored American teens to care about Shakespeare and To Kill a Mockingbird. No, I'll be sharing language and culture with students around the world. And yeah, some of them will be bored, but I feel like in an ESL curriculum there's more room to be inventive and incorporate technology and digital culture. If they're bad in class, I can always Rick-Roll them.
The job climate in the US is depressing to say the least. I don't want to run off to NYC to intern at a magazine or be an assistant at a publishing firm like every other graduating writing student on the east coast. Confession: I don't even like NYC that much. I'm more of a country girl.
Of course the hope is that I'll start publishing my fiction and make an income from that. But I don't live in fairy land (or even the world of Hemingway's A Movable Feast). Writing doesn't pay that well. Even if you're good. You have to be both prolific and popular
I know I want to write and travel and I'm afraid that if I don't do it now, I never will. I'll fall into some job that I don't really like that will sap my energy and my time to write. I'll get too settled to leave. Like most of my family, I'll end up living the rest of my days within 20 miles of the place I was born. That's why I have to go now. I can't give myself a chance to fall into a rut because I'll stay there.
And yes, I know that this lifestyle I'm describing has many drawbacks and challenges. Arranging visas, tax forms, language barriers, being far from the familiar, not being able to have many material possessions, etc. I'm not saying I'll do this for the rest of my life. I feel like I should spend the rest of my 20s with rich eyes and poor hands. I should sleep on other peoples' couches around the world. When I hit 30, I'll reevaluate and see if it's time to buy my own couch.
So that's my manifesto of the moment. Updates on this painful process of arranging my future will trickle in. Thanks guys.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

"...Or you'll end up in my novel"

"You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should've behaved better."
--Anne Lamott

The first time I came across the ethical question of blurring the line between fiction and nonfiction was as a teen. A slightly paranoid friend in high school told me that her ex-boyfriend based a character in his play off of her and that she thought it was morally reprehensible. More recently, while reading the manuscript of a friend, I came to the realization that one of her characters was based off me. An odd sensation to read a fictionalization of yourself, but she was just a side character with my physical traits who would occasionally slip in literary words of wisdom to the narrator (in fact, the worst thing I might say is that I read a bit dull as a character).
In my own writing, however, after leaving behind the sadly autobiographical stories I wrote in childhood, I've tried to avoid basing characters directly off people in my own life. Working on some of my more recent projects however, I've discovered that it's inevitable. As writers, our minds are our landscapes. Everything we've read, seen, or experiences is what we funnel into our stories. Most importantly, the people we meet shape us.
I doubt there is any writer who can honestly say that nothing they've written has some basis in an experience they had or a person they've known. I think we often end up playing the "what if?" game. You start with an amusing or interesting situation from life and invent from there. Say, a late night volleyball game on the beach with your friends. Now you say "what if a treasure map had washed up on the shore that night?" or possibly, "what if Gary and I hated each other more and took out our animosities during the game?" There must be a story in that. The game in real life might have been tame, but throwing in those other variables makes it plot.
Some characters will become a composite of people I know. They might have one person's occupation, another's penchant for compulsive cleaning, but I develop completely fictional relationships for them within the story. Sometimes, if a close friend is being used as any sort of basis, I'll clear it with them first. I'll let them know that I'm lifting a bit of their physicality, or a circumstance from their life and using it in my story. So far no one has objected.
In most cases, I doubt someone reading my novel would pick out what they had been the inspiration for. I do have ethical qualms about making a direct transcript of a real person from my life to a character. But I can't pretend that my stories don't have the occasional non fiction basis. As a writer, I feel I have a sort of duty to capture the reality of human experience. Fiction is real in that sense, it can be a recognizable truth about life from a story that didn't happen, at least not exactly. It didn't happen, but it's still true.
Even more problematic can be injecting a "me" character into stories. It can be so easy to slip into writing about a hero that is basically your own self, especially when writing in the first person. I think a little bit of yourself will always be present in your characters. After all, what they say and do are filtered through you. But, sometimes it's really liberating to write from the perspective of someone totally different. A different background, different stance on issues, different race or gender, different age: I think experimenting with that can help you get outside yourself as a writer. And that can be so good for the work.