Can You Write a Book About Yourself?Nov 12, 2017
This is one of the most common questions I'm asked.
Here's the answer.
Yes. But don't make it about yourself.
“All fiction is largely autobiographical and much autobiography is, of course, fiction.” P.D. James.
“It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there's not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality.” Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
“The Coetzee who emerges from an informed reading of his papers is very different author from the one we thought we knew. Most surprisingly, his writing process turns out to be highly autobiographical, at least in its points of departure. It then involves a gradual, but determined process of writing himself out of the narratives, a ‘burning off of the self’ as it were.” David Attwell.
A novel starts with you, yourself, and ends without you.
Why? And how?
Writing is, and I'm not ashamed to say it, the deepest form of therapy, treatment or self-doctoring not on the market.
It's like this:
A story starts with your recognition of your own deepest concern combined with your inability to cope with it. You look your ineptitude in the eye and see it but you can't deal with it. So you give it to someone else to deal with.
A cat brings in a mouse from the garden - a mad, terrified, scuttling thing - and drops it on the carpet as if to say 'deal with it.'
It's just like that.
You need to deal with it, but with the sleight of hand common to all artists, you do so at arm's length, holding your nose, averting your eyes.
Give it to someone else to deal with, someone not at all like you.
If you give it to someone like you to deal with in your story, it won't work. You'll have no sympathy at all. You won't solve it and you'll treat 'them' with the impatience and disdain you reserve for yourself above all others.
So give it to someone you could feel sorry for. If you're a woman, make it a man. It's good practice for the pity which forms the basis of longer loves.
A novel takes the writer and the reader on a journey from blindness to vision, from a mess to clarity, to a place where the problem is faced.
We process the problem, and deal with it, using what Professors Fonagy and Bateman have dubbed 'Mentalization'.
'Mentalizing is a form of imaginative mental activity about others or oneself, namely, perceiving and interpreting human behaviour in terms of intentional mental states (e.g. needs, desires, feelings, beliefs, goals, purposes, and reasons). The normal ability to ascribe intentions and meaning to human behaviour. To see ourselves from the outside and others from the inside.'
What does non-mentalizing look like, according to them?
- Excessive detail to the exclusion of motivations, feelings or thoughts
- Focus on external social factors, such as the school, the council, the neighbours
- Focus on physical or structural labels (tired, lazy, clever, self-destructive, depressed, short-fuse)
In the age of social media, the ability to mentalize, understand intentions of self and other may well be impaired. Increasing numbers of academic studies are finding that mental health problems have been soaring among girls over the past 10 – and in particular five – years, coinciding with the period in which young people’s use of social media has exploded. The number of times a girl aged 17 or under has been admitted to hospital in England because of self-harm has jumped to more than 17,500 a year over the past decade – a rise of 68%. Man, that's sad. (Let's get young women writing novels.)
What does good mentalizing look like?
- Absence of paranoia
- Contemplation and reflection
- Perspective taking
- Genuine interest
- Openness to discovery
- Forgiveness predictability
I wonder, sometimes, whether writers are deficient 'mentalizers' and have to work harder at it, in a more laboured way than others.
“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.” Graham Greene, Ways of Escape.
All the better writers, PD James, Greene and Coetzee, Knausgaard and Ferrante of course, admit it readily. Their stories are about them. It's where a story starts. Where it ends is elsewhere. You rub yourself out.
If when you see something beautiful your first thought is of possession then your second and overruling thought should be becoming that thing. That’s your higher purpose. To rise and disappear. To change, as many times as necessary. Writing novels enables multiple metamorphoses.
Report and reflect on life, don’t adjudicate.
Your writer's ambition should not be for you. It should be for your art, your writing, for what you can create with what you’d be given. Separate that ambition from the ambition for ‘yourself’ - to gain priority over another - by recognition, status and money - and all will be well.
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