Fiction is disguised memoir. I used to say this when people asked me about writing my first novel. I find myself suddenly thinking about this again as I get deeper into GRACE.
What I meant then, I think, was that everything I wrote, whether it was based on something that happened to me or imagined, was based on things that I had experienced, whether personally or through media. While I’m writing I don’t think much about it but when I go back and try to discern the origins of a paragraph or sentence, I can trace it to that room in my friend’s house, this feeling of carrying a bag of leftovers from dinner, that thing a person did with their hands in a movie.
But that’s too simple an explanation. What I’m seeing now, in the thick of writing, is that it’s not as fully automatic as I had thought. You can just as easily throw together a bunch of ingredients and come out the other end with a confused mush of no discernible origin. Part of the art and craft of writing is bringing out, at times, the individual notes. There are moments when you want to taste the potato-y-ness of the potato.
Or to put it in a metaphor I’ve used in past letters: A lot of what I’ve written so far for GRACE is in-the-sky, unconscious imagination; as I go through the manuscript again I’m looking for opportunities to give it a body. I suppose you could call it realism, but the body image seems more fitting. Becoming more embodied in our lives often means connecting to our physical, sensory experience. It also means being more grounded in the present moment – in time. What it means for fiction, I think, is more consciously connecting to memory.
Let me give a example: When a character’s sad, I can draw on popular conceptions of sadness. She can frown, shed a tear, hang her head. They’re cliches, and sometimes they’re the details that come readily in a rough draft; I write them and move on. But when I go back and notice something about the moment that feels hollow, I then try to connect it to a specific time I felt sad. I think of the way it was sunny outside, and how unfair it felt, that the world didn’t seem to agree with my sadness. I think about how it’d come at the end of a long hike, and the sweat on my forearms and along my hairline struck me as tears; how even though my eyes were dry I’d cried through my skin, all the way up the mountain.
There might not be a mountain in the story, but there might be something else that serves the same purpose. The important thing is that I’m in two places at once: the sky of the imagination and the ground of memory. The mind of the story, and the body of my experience.