On: The Perils of Sharing In-Progress Fiction with Friends & Family

I’ve been part of fiction workshop groups for nearly a decade now, and sharing early draft fiction with other writers has become easy, even when I expect (and receive) a lot of constructive feedback and criticism on the work. But I’ve yet to share any of this early stage work with close friends, family members, and even my husband. The reason for this isn’t because I don’t trust them; it’s because they’re not fiction writers. I don’t expect my programmer friends to show me early drafts of their code, because, although I have a rudimentary knowledge of JavaScript and can follow the logic if I put my mind to it, I am not a programmer. I can’t interpret what they’ve written with an eye to fostering growth or providing useful critique. It’s the same with fiction.

Based on their typical lines of questioning, I think those who don’t write fiction might imagine it to be something like memoir. I’ve gotten the question about whether this is a thinly-veiled retelling of actual events. I’ve gotten the question, which character am I? These questions always offend me. If all I can do with my craft is change your name and move the story from Florida to France, I’m not a very good writer of fiction, am I? Thanks for the vote of confidence. :/

But I shouldn’t be so hard on them. After all, they don’t write fiction. A few of the fundamental qualities of a fiction writer include her tendency to daydream, her rich reading life, her vivid imagination, and her curiosity about the inner lives of others. This culminates in an understanding of the world that folds fiction into experience. Fact doesn’t hold supremacy when you’re used to discovering truth in fiction just as, or more often than you find it in a data set. So when fiction writers read Virginia Woolf, we never think, which character is Leonard in this novel? We think, my god what gorgeous sentences! and isn’t that so truly how our minds ping-pong through experience!

That’s not to say that fiction writers don’t mine our own experiences for insight that gets used in our stories, but fiction is not memoir. A writer’s fiction does not reflect the secret inner workings of the writer’s mind and life. If it was filled with facts, a writer wouldn’t call her work fiction. She’d call it verité, an article, or maybe even essay. If her work was memoir, she would call it memoir.

The trouble for readers who know you well is that they think they see themselves, or moments from your past. They layer what they know of you into your work, and that can destroy it, especially early on. If I’m wondering whether my husband thinks I’m living a double life because I write a story exploring the quest for happiness, the artistic impulse, and the ways people sabotage themselves when trying to achieve fulfillment, through  a protagonist who is leasing a secret flat to escape from her family or working for the CIA when she tells her spouse she’s going to the office… I won’t write that story.

I care about my husband far more than I care about my sentences, but I’d like to be able to have both — so, as a rule, I don’t share my work while I’m feeling my way through it.

Fiction writers are using pure imagination – we craft lies that we hope illuminate a truth. We find that truth and we get to know our characters by writing them, and every early draft is really just an exploration. If we share our work with those who we fear will layer our own biographical details in and think they know something about us — because, for instance, the writer happens to have a mole on her cheek in exactly the place that the character has a scar! — their reading will stunt the continued writing of the story. Writers worry about enough without also worrying about whether our fledgling stories will make our mothers think we hate them.

Fiction writers aren’t narcissistically plumbing the depths of our own histories and consciousness. We’re using our imaginations — all the what ifs that bang around in our skulls all day — to inhabit the experience of others. Writing fiction is about empathy, about crawling inside the life experience of someone else, a character we construct from puzzle pieces of the hundreds of people we know, love, hate, meet, acquaint ourselves with, observe, read about, overhear on the bus… We create composites that, to us, become real as we write them.

Some writers do create characters that are more similar to them, and some write those who are as unlike them as they could possibly be. Either way, the drive to write fiction is a drive to understand the world through the individual eyes of others, and if we are using story to explore our own psyches, it’s in the sense that we’re digging as deeply as we can into the questions we can’t stop thinking about. Writing fiction is fundamentally about curiosity, and we try to satisfy that curiosity by bringing characters to life on the page.

Writers of fiction need to protect the writing process. We love and trust those close to us, but we also need them to know that the creative process is a messy one, and it’s not about them. We aren’t keeping secrets, we’re building worlds. We need to be able to do that without a layer cake of worry, expectation, and influence. And, yes, we do need to share our work, to give and get feedback to hone our craft. But this is work, above all. It’s not a hobby that we care only marginally about, spare time stuff. Writing fiction seriously is a vocation; to obtain useful feedback, we share with our peers, colleagues — those who know firsthand that fiction is full of imaginary friends, worlds that don’t exist, and the quest for beautiful sentences.

Remember Me?

<big yawn>  Has it really been so long…again? Lately, I’ve been thinking about writing a fashion-focused blog, but every time I begin to plan it out, I also begin to break out in hives. I’ll run out of things to say about clothes, I’m certain of it. I love getting dressed, but it’s not that interesting.

Here are a few things I’ve done since September 2014, and even though my twitter feed is still far superior to my memory, this time I’ll rely on memory so I don’t barrage you with minutiae:

  • I graduated my Master’s program and promptly got a job as a librarian at a small subscription library founded in 1854. I’ve been there since August and I love going to work every day — well, almost every day. Which is not bad when you consider how hard I dreaded going to work every day when I worked in finance just seven short years ago.
  • An award for writing excellence from LITA & Ex Libris was presented to me at ALA conference in San Francisco, and the paper I submitted will be published in a peer-reviewed library science journal in December. It’s not the Paris Review or anything, but I’m pretty proud of my first publication.
  • After finishing the initial draft of a new novella (163 pages) in 6 months flat, I drank some champagne with my fiction critique group-mates last week to celebrate. Don’t rush me; I’ll start revisions next month.
  • Races have continued to be a fixture: one every few months, all of them of the nice & easy 5K persuasion. I like to think of myself as a hedonist when it comes to athleticism: run only as long as it feels good. And eat a cupcake afterward.
  • I went to a couple of professional library conferences this year, as well as a writing conference in Minneapolis, where I dined solo at a James Beard Award-winning restaurant. I highly recommend both La Belle Vie’s elegant food and ambience, and the experience of luxury dining à soi-même, if you have the inclination and don’t mind breaking your piggy bank for the splurge. Donna Meagle & Tom Haverford would approve.
  • And, oh yeah, I’m a blonde now. It’s even on my driver’s license, so it’s true. I can confirm that blondes don’t necessarily have more fun, but more people do stare at them, which I assume is because the brightness is blinding, yet captivating, like a solar eclipse.

<dust> <dust> The bricolagerie is back in business. Again…