The Problem of the Trite, of the Feminine, Self

There’s one issue I’m facing again and again as I try to become whatever sort of writer is the right writer for me to be: my first book is a coming of age novel, its central character is a young woman, and depression and recovery are writ large. Told that, people assume it is autobiographical, and I assume they will assume that and so I’m embarrassed to talk about its content at all. Here’s one for the record: it’s a novel – it’s a work of fiction.

This blog, on the other hand, is not fiction. Here I’ve been experimenting with different postures towards the writing world, sure, but I’ve been ‘honest at the time’ in the way I’ve tried each of them. The blog is autobiographical not primarily in the sense that it tells you what happened (though sometimes it does that too) but instead in its attempted true reflection of what I’m learning about myself, my writing, and where that writing might fit in. It’s an attempt to tie down my current thoughts, to translate fluctuating neural networks that are at times disabling onto the relative stability of the page. (Many of you have said that exploration has benefited you. Thank you for telling me that.)

So: blog autobiographical, if inevitably faultily so. Fiction not. Why does it matter?

Because of the connotations of that assumption of disguised autobiography. Because of the hit to my ego that entails. Writing fiction explicitly about yourself (assuming such a thing is possible) feels like a weak route to go down. It suggests a lack of imagination, or of knowledge of anything beyond oneself – and an overwhelming self-centredness to boot. Add depression and recovery from it to that mix and the spectre of writing as therapy looms large.

(There is nothing at all wrong with writing as therapy. Occasionally I do it myself. But I don’t publish what results from those sessions. And that is not what The Storyteller is.)

Serious writers, my head tells me, don’t write explicitly about themselves. Instead they do all the things my schoolgirl and university student essays said that they do. They explicate human existence. They lay bare the meaning of life. They transport us to other worlds. They humanise great themes. They show us the reality of politics or of history – of other perspectives. Or whatever. (My essays were rarely good.) But they don’t sit down and bore on about themselves.

Except they do. Think Günter Grass, Germany’s 20th century, Nobel Prize winning literary conscience. The Tin Drum may come across as the strangest and most politically serious fiction, but Grass’s autobiography Peeling the Onion feels like a loose rewrite of the same material. Grass’s fiction draws heavily on personal experience and changes some of the facts. He’s hardly the only one.

I’ve read enough over enough years to know this, so why does it bother me so much?

It’s partly a woman thing. I didn’t know until last week how heavily influenced Plath (and Hughes) had been by Robert Lowell. It was not Plath for whose work the term ‘confessional poetry’ was coined: the term referred to Lowell, and Plath became seen as part of that school. If I’d known that I’d have been more comfortable in acknowledging the confessional aspect of my own writing. This blog would have felt less self-indulgent, less trite, more serious, through having more of a literary heritage to claim as its own. (I’m not making a point about quality here; merely of confidence in the content of literary expression.)

It shouldn’t matter whether it’s Lowell or Plath. But in my mind it does.

I’m afraid, you see, of being dismissed (by men) as merely a woman talking about herself, and as a result of that dismissal being ignored.

The Storyteller is, in its own way, domestic. It is about first love, and first sex. It is about growing friendships, about getting a job and keeping a job until life catches up with you and then you don’t work there anymore. It is also about an abandoned wife and rejection by the in-laws. All of that under the shadow of serious mental illness and the experiences that results in.

Domestic, in a sense. And yet the readers who have loved it most have been men. Both my publisher and the friend who sent the manuscript to him: men. The novel reaches beyond its apparent gender: it’s not ‘women’s writing’, whatever that is. Nor is it thinly disguised autobiography, nor is it writing as therapy.

Amanda Palmer, mistress of oversharing personal experience, talks about artists’ works resulting from personal material put through a blender. Different artists use different settings on that blender. Use setting 10 and no-one senses it’s your personal life in there at all. Setting 1, on the other hand, bleeds exactly what your experience was straight onto the page.

For those who are interested, The Storyteller is on about setting 6. Some of the experiences are real. Many of the emotions are emotions I have felt in some situation. But the characters are not me. The story is not me. The individual scenes are not scenes from my life. I have seen orchids but I have not confused them for daisies.

The blog, on the other hand, is on setting 2, give or take. It’s confessional, if stylised, though the style is intended to heighten the honesty. So maybe it’s a ‘1’ after all.

Maybe none of this matters. Maybe it’s all in my head. But in a world where it seems writing by women is still viewed less seriously than writing by men it’s been bothering me. And Things That Are Bothering Me are one class of thing that this autobiographical, confessional blog is absolutely for.


As ever, if you want to read more musings on this topic, or to be reminded when my novel is published, then click here to subscribe to my newsletter.

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