The Kindness of Strangers

I have an odd phobia around my writing: I don’t like to show it to people I know.

I think this has always been true, but one incident that stands out in my mind took place in a college fiction writing class, for which I wrote a short story. It was about a young woman dealing with her mother’s suicide. It was two, maybe three pages, and I had to read it aloud for the class. When I was finished, the room was dead silent, and I looked around to find everyone staring at me with big, round eyes.

“You understand,” I said then, “that MY mother is alive. This is fiction.

At that point the class got back to its regular job of critiquing; but it did make me realize that people who know me – even a little – might be inclined to read my fiction and wonder how much of it was made up, and how much of it was me.

Strangers do not have that problem. Strangers have whatever nom de plume ends up on the novel, and perhaps an absurdly flattering, over-Photoshopped dust jacket photo. If I have written the book I want to write, strangers are not going to be thinking about me, the author, at all. They will be too absorbed in my story to wonder if Character A is based on that bitchy girl I knew in college, or if Scenario B is a retelling of some awful childhood incident, or if I ever have, like my heroine, thrown anything through a plate-glass window.

Mind you: if I write the novel I want to write, my friends and family won’t be thinking about me, either. I remember reading my cousin’s romance novels, and I never, while I was in the middle of the book, thought about her at all. I did, sometimes, picture her at her typewriter, thinking academically about euphemisms she could use for sexual acts; but that was after I was done with the book, and I’d started to wonder about her construction process.

So I suspect this is my concern, and nobody else’s.

Over the holiday, my mom and I had a brief discussion about my NaNoWriMo novel. I told her if I finished it she could, of course, read it; but that she might not want to. I explained that I wrote in some detail about sex here and there, and perhaps it would be more than she wanted to know. Fundamentally misunderstanding my worry, she said blandly that she’d been around a while, and I was unlikely to shock her. It didn’t occur to her that I’d worry she’d be wondering if I was writing about myself.

That’s the thing about fiction, though, isn’t it? It is me. Of course it is. How could it not be? At the same time, it’s not me at all. It’s people I dislike, or people I would like to be, or situations I would find interesting to read about. I write what I would like to read, and although my own life – and my ambitions, such as they are – are fascinating to me on a daily basis, I don’t (to quote a lovely movie) expect that to be contagious.

That’s part of why I write happy endings. They may not be perfect endings – boy gets girl, they live happily ever after – but the good guys (mostly) win, and the bad guys (mostly) lose. Justice is done on some level, privately if not publicly. My characters have their little microcosmic wins, even if the universe around them does not change.

Maybe that reflects how I see life. We have absolute control over so little, it seems to me we ought to celebrate the things we can. Even the small things – because the big things are so often made up of many, many small things. And when I write, I can decide which small things to celebrate. I don’t write autobiographies – I write fantasies.

(Of course, as long as we’re on the subject – yeah, Character A is that bitchy girl I knew in college.)


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