A few months ago I was talking about my reading to a friend who’d just published his first e-book. I thought he might enjoy Belonging which, I said, features aspects of recent Indian history that appear in fiction less often than Partition, the backdrop to Where the River Parts. Oh, I was there, said my friend – or more eloquent words to that effect. You were there during Partition? quoth I. You should write about it!
I was reminded of this when I read a recent article by Amitav Ghosh the Guardian in which he writes about not writing about a significant event in his life:
On the afternoon of March 17, 1978, when I was 21, I was stuck in the middle of the first tornado to hit Delhi in recorded meteorological history. As is often the case with people who are waylaid by unpredictable events, for years afterwards my mind kept returning to my encounter with the tornado .… To think of it in terms of chance and coincidence seemed only to impoverish the experience: it was like trying to understand a poem by counting the words …
Novelists inevitably mine their own experience when they write. No less than any other writer have I dug into my own past while writing fiction. It is certainly true that storms, floods and unusual weather events do recur in my books, and this may well be a legacy of the tornado. Yet oddly enough, no tornado has ever figured in my novels. Nor is this due to any lack of effort on my part. Indeed, I have returned to the experience often over the years, hoping to put it to use in a novel, only to meet with failure at every attempt.
Referring to this article in a recent review of a cli-fi novel, I queried his reasoning that he didn’t write about this experience because it was too incredible to be believed, and wondered if there might be an alternative explanation. While I have no knowledge, apart from what’s quoted above, of how this experience affected him, just as I don’t know what Partition meant to my friend, I do know that some formative experiences can be very difficult to fictionalise, not so much, as Ghosh implies, because of the nature of the event itself, but because of its profound personal relevance. I do think it’s safer to leave some stories in the consulting room.
Ironically, the best illustration I’ve found of a story that can’t be told by the person it belongs to is in fiction. War heroine and former SOE agent, Marian Sutro, is being interviewed by a journalist in Tightrope by Simon Mawer (p89):
He’d seen the newsreels, of course and interviewed some who claim to have been at the liberation of Belsen. What was her experience? ‘My readers would love to know. We need to tell the public what it was like.’
‘You can’t what?’
‘Tell them. You cannot tell anyone what it was like. It wasn’t the stuff of words …’ But she told him something anyway, or tried to ... ‘If I were you I’d write a book about your experiences,’ he said.
‘But you’re not, are you? You’re not me.’ And she felt something strange, the sensation of uniqueness. It wasn’t a good feeling, just one of separation, like being unable to speak the language that is common to all those around you.
Fiction is the friend of those us with difficult personal stories by providing a medium through which we can simultaneously reveal and conceal in a metaphorical telling of what makes us who we are. Through fiction we can repeatedly refine our telling, showing our personal story from different angles and in different moods. For example, the extremely versatile novelist Ann Patchett has said that she writes the “exactly the same book over and over again” perhaps stemming from her childhood experience of being part of a blended family.
While I acknowledge that sharing our untold stories can be therapeutic, I fly the flag for caution. I wonder about the maverick, or perhaps merely uninformed, creative writing tutor unaware they are playing with fire when they invite new writers to mine their pasts for stories.
I’m posting this topic now in response to the latest flash fiction prompt to write a 99-word story using the word gander in the sense of looking, rather than as the male goose. I’m interested in what we see when we look deeply into ourselves, and then what we do subsequently with that seeing. My flash is also influenced by musings on how my fear of denial of the darkness can put me out of step with the upbeat climate of the blogosphere, prompted by my response to one of the comments on Charli’s post (and wondering why I hadn’t just let it go).
Donning hard hats, we collected picks and hessian sacks and stepped into the cage. Down it went through the darkness, down and farther down, before jolting to a halt. “Go on,” said the tutor. “Have a gander around. See what you can find.”
The students whooped and giggled as they stuffed their bags with gems and precious metals, and the occasional cuddly toy. “To think we’d find such treasures below the surface of our minds!”
Shivering, hyperventilating, I crouched in the corner of the cage. Out there, for me, all was the deepest black.