Jeannine Atkins: How Personal Should a Fiction Writer Get?
The first day of the writing course I teach at Simmons at the Carle, it seemed clear that most students would need little coaxing to reveal their heartfelt concerns. But in the writing journals submitted to me, some confided that they found personal writing hard. Someone (not a student) asked why I chose to begin with memoirs, taking a look at Roxaboxen and an excerpt from Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings, and doing some exercises that ask writers to look back. Many of us begin from personal history, even if we don’t end there. Memory can provide and fill in, though it shouldn’t limit our choices or dictate fiction’s structure. And when we write about anything whatsoever, we tap into our mind, and what’s there is there. It’s best if we can welcome it all in early drafts, rather than trying to swat away some memories. It’s too early to decide what’s a nuisance and what’s a gift.
During the first week, I ask students to read Charlotte’s Web and The Watson’s Go to Birmingham –1963 for a thousand good reasons, but today I thought of the novels we start the course with in terms of the lives of the writers behind them. E. B. White wrote of often feeling safest hiding out in the horse barn when he was a child, and later in life, he lived on a small farm in Maine. Details he cherished certainly add to the novel’s setting and mood. Maybe E.B. White was also Charlotte: but he wasn’t afraid to make changes, such as human to spider, as well as writing about what he knew. And while Christopher Paul Curtis shares a birth year, childhood home, and family circumstances with Kenny in The Watson’s Go to Birmingham –1963, maybe it’s in places that the truth veers where the novel is most moving.
This week, we’re reading Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson and See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles . Some key events in the first novel were inspired by a tragedy suffered by Paterson’s son, to whom the novel is dedicated. And my friend Jo Knowles has written on her blog jbknowles about drawing on some childhood experiences for See You at Harry’s. I chose to start the course reading good novels for readers about ages 7 to 14, and thought there was some diversity with pigs, spiders, and humans, and more boy characters than I always naturally select. But I suppose putting together a syllabus, like writing, draws from the subconscious as well as more academic intent. Now I realize that not only do all four books draw from the personal, but all touch on death in various ways. And our class had already discussed the lizard grave in Roxaboxen (a student mention a teacher who glued those pages together), and the darkness that deepens as we read through Goodnight, Moon.
I believe writing calls for courage to face everything that moves into our minds and hands. Old feelings and new fantasies, grief and hope, the real, imagination, and truth. The mind doesn’t necessarily draw clear distinctions between the personal and imagination, but leaves lines for the organizing mind to draw later. Creative writing is not for the faint-hearted, and I should add maybe not either for those calling on courage to face other challenges. So we start out, all windows and doors open, and with an expectation of kindness from everyone around the table.