Every now and again I meet a novelist who brags their work is so powerful, it even makes themselves cry. How’s that for the weirdest chest-thumping you’ve ever heard? Also, it’s ridiculous. A novel is a personal thing: by necessity an author draws it from experience. Who will ever relate more to your own experience than you?
One of fiction’s most alluring features is how it reveals the writer. Even if you attempt to conceal yourself, over enough pages all that obscured personal background eventually takes tangible form. Thanks to writing, my personal truth—quite often truth I would never speak aloud—is out there in a physical form, even if only certain sensibilities might know how to see it. I get a thrill from danger of it.
The passages that strike closest to home in my own work always surprise me.
My first attempt at a novel was an Of Human Bondage-sized, more-or-less genuine but utterly unmarketable effort about what must have felt like All The Things. After finishing a late draft, I printed out the 1000+ pages and sat down to read. About half way through, one line knocked me sideways. The young immature narrator is on one of his tirades (shhh, of course) when he takes a sudden turn, and my emotions just couldn’t keep the road. I did not feel a sweet twinge of sadness, I nearly had a meltdown right in the coffee shop where I had dragged my enormous typescript. Even as I was trying to hold it together, I felt something self-mocking—as if I had played a batshit long-game prank just to embarrass myself with feelings in a public place. The event the passage describes was not from my own life (fortunately I couldn’t sustain much more than a hundred pages of thinly-veiled autobiography from my stupid existence), but I realized this line was the most intensely personal statement I had yet made in my life. I have no idea what it was.
It’s cheating if I don’t give a more concrete example.
I perform a crucial stage of editing by reading aloud, so I have to—let’s say ”get to!”—listen to my fiction a lot. Recently I came across this bit below from The Killbug Eulogies, concerning a poet soldier in the war against galactic space bugs. My girlfriend says this book can be a little hard on poets and poetry. My college degree is not in poetry, but I had to read a lot of poetry to get it, so I own my feelings about it. Anyways, this paragraph sums them up:
Or if you can read for yourself:
“That he was a poet, I could forgive him. What is a poet? Someone who lets you down repeatedly, someone you can count on to disappoint you—yet you still believe in them. A poet: the best they can do is pretty bad, but you want them in there when everything’s on the line. You actually choke down embarrassment while you cheer them on—hey, watch this guy make a jackass out of us and everything we strive for. Poet.”
“Yet you still believe in them” told me something I hadn’t suspected about what I find beautiful in the world. It had an immediacy for me I can’t put into words.
Except those, I guess.
Some emotional responses to books or film are pretty universal: for instance, Bambi’s mom, or the drifting bag in American Beauty. (Or so I’m told!) Have you ever had an experience that inspired a much different and more intense response than the moment seemed to call for? So much that it surprised you?
I have a comment section. No pressure!