Let me warn you right away: this is going to be one of those rambling, quasi-philosophical posts where I try to put together thoughts I’ve been having recently about the state of my writing life.
First, I finished reading a book that will haunt me for a long time. It’s Lily King‘s Father of the Rain. Merciless, gut-wrenching, life-affirming, completely absorbing. And so, so painful to read. But I loved the main character, whose first-person voice reached in and grabbed me. It hit so exactly my time of life, the era in which I was coming of age, but it was by no means a YA book. I witnessed firsthand the country-club world and its excesses and hypocrisies. Alcohol abuse was a regular part of my youth: unacknowledged, unconfronted, but taking a toll on everyone. I remember mixing my mother’s stingers when I was 11 years old.
But I don’t write about those things. I can’t. I don’t have enough distance from them. Or maybe I’m just a coward. Sometimes I think I’m trying to rewrite my childhood and youth, give my heroines more control and ability to act than I had—in the case of my fictional heroines, that is. I create much worse situations for them than I ever encountered in my youth. After all, I had a solid, nuclear family. No one died except for the very old. I never starved or went without. I knew my parents loved me, even if they didn’t fully understand me.
Instead, I think I mine the imagination I had. I retreated into books and music to nurse my emotional wounds. I lay awake long hours into the night daydreaming about some other life, where I lived in a treehouse and didn’t wear glasses, and everyone loved me. I did very well in school, but I remember getting comments on my report cards that I was “moody,” whatever that meant. And that I daydreamed too much.
I read mysteries, historical novels, fantasy. I’d find an author I liked and read everything I could by him or her. All of Marguerite Henry, all of Mary Renault, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and later all of Alistair Maclean. Adventure, romance, excitement, and everything turning out well in the end.
In my teens I graduated to Nabokov, Hesse, the Brontes, etc., but I never lost my love for the escapist literature of my youth. A well-thumbed paperback mystery is still my literary comfort food.
A common piece of advice for aspiring authors is to write what you like to read. I think it’s good advice generally. But don’t write everything you like to read. For me, the dictum means that I probably shouldn’t attempt fantasy or science fiction because I generally don’t read those genres. On the other hand, I gobbled up Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy.
Where is this going? I think that I’ve learned to be a very open and accepting reader. I’ll try almost anything, even though I don’t always succeed in finishing it.
But writing is such a deeply personal act. You have to live with your characters, believe in them, take their troubles into your heart and suffer with them. Maybe someday I’ll grow up and be able to dig into the hard, painful, internal things that have dogged my own life. In the meantime, I’ll continue to set my stories in distant times and places, and give my heroines characteristics I never had but always wanted: physical courage, physical beauty (OK, so I mainly mean no glasses…), adventurousness. Bits of those issues I avoid thinking about in real life creep in anyway, and maybe I’m just working things out in a way I can handle, bit by bit.