Write what you know they say but that’s not all of it is it? Another perspective is to write what you’re interested in, what fascinates you, what, perhaps takes you away from what you know. Write to take yourself away from the quicksand of your own life, where you cannot see out or through or write through your life, autobiographically to find an angle, a perspective that can help you tell both the story of yourself and the story of people in situations like yours, help you find that chord that resonates.
I’ve just finished reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (like, me a mother of four.) This bestselling, human, heartwarming tale of a man who sets out on a long walk towards an old friend who is dying. He hopes somehow that as he walks across the country, she will wait for him, stay alive. But, more importantly by setting out to do something utterly different and seemingly impossible he is, himself, coming back alive from a life and a marriage that has somehow, along the way, died. In my last post I spoke about what made John Green’s book the Fault in Our Stars take off and the key point was this: it tapped into some fundamental reality that most people can identify with. Similarly Harold Fry taps into that universal theme of how our lives can sometimes get away from us without us knowing exactly why, how we get lost and need a nudge to find our way. While the book is written from the perspective of a male protagonist, (loosely based on Joyce’s father) the book, rather than being autobiographical, still I’m sure, explores the kinds of understanding Joyce has come to over the course of her life.
We’re encouraged not to write for the market specifically, though perhaps keeping an eye on its developments is not a bad idea but fashions and preferences change and you may or may not be lucky in turning out a book in the right style with the right sort of tone and characters at just the right time. There are many personal factors at play when you set out to choose the book you want to write. For example I had two possible projects on the go a couple of years ago which have now resulted in the books Housewife with a Half-Life and The Book of Remembered Possibilities. The former is a comedy set in alternate universes, the second is a literary novel concerned with stories, and one of the protagonists tells her story from a parallel reality. In substance both of these first novels (one as my sci-fi self A.B. Wells) are quite similar and draw on my own wrangles and experiences of forging life as a mother and keeping a sense of separate identity and ambition. This is a regular theme, most recently explored in Mary Grehan’s Love is the Easy Bit.
The new project I’m working on explores the world of art and my favourite theme, that of belief. I have a background in Psychology and in particular I’m fascinated by social psychology and neuroscience and how people’s belief gives rise to phenomenon including dot com bubbles, moving statues, mass paralysis and the rise of dictatorships. There is material there for a thousand books or more. As my children get over and time frees up I can look and write wider than the original books whose material was closer to home.
But of writing the book for the time in your life… I was ready to write either Housewife with a Half-Life or The Book of Remembered Possibilities but a tragic illness in my extended family made me unable to write at all for a while and then write, because it helped, in a lighter mode than what The Book of Remembered Possibilities called for. I wrote the lighter comic novel Housewife with a Half-Life about spacemen, kids, apple pies and saving the universe because the circumstances of my life dictated it.
There are times in your life that are like that, where you can hardly see out, hardly see ahead. There are phases that are busy; the years with very small children, work commitments, caring for extended family. It won’t be physically possible to write your Opus then. You might decide to take your time, to research a book and take years over it, for the love and the interest of it. Otherwise, if you want to finish projects and submit them your work will have to be leaner and lighter perhaps, you might write interrelated flash fiction and combine it later but there will be words of some kind that reflect your interests, your talents and the place in your life you were, at the time you wrote it. It might frustrate; the things you could do if you had all the time in the world but if you write out of your own personal mud and light, it is real and true, it’s the best you can do, (and you will get better each time) it’s human and it’s commendable and it might just strike a chord.