There are many ways to become a good writer, but one of the best ways to become a great one–besides giving yourself a thorough grounding in the mechanics of language–is to get over yourself. The fact of the matter is that, even though you’re writing the book, the book is not about you. This is especially true of fiction. You write about the things you know…but no one really knows themselves, because who, after all, can be objective about the ultimate in subjectivity?
I’m certain that all fiction writers have been guilty of this at some point in their careers–usually a point well before they develop a readership. I remember reading that Hemingway’s masterful short story, “Big Two-Hearted River,” originally ended with fifteen pages of ruminations on writing. Hemingway cut this all out. The story doesn’t mention writing; it doesn’t mention the war, though it’s about a young man returning from war, which Hemingway had been. The story is about nothing at all: a man gets off a train at a burned-up backwoods village, walks to a river, catches a few fish, eats dinner, sleeps, and catches a few more fish. There is no plot. There are no other characters. You are not even sure where it takes place. The name of the river in the title is the name of an actual river but not, according to critics, the river described in the story. Yet it is one of the most powerful works of art one might encounter in any medium. It is about something that Hemingway knew about, but it is not about Hemingway.
When you try to “express yourself” in a story, or when you try to argue for a social or political or spiritual program, your story can become preachy, polemical, or perturbing. It is no longer a story then, but a parable, and you are trying not to expand your readers’ lives but to indoctrinate your audience. Sometimes–often–it is an effort to indoctrinate them into the cult of yourself. Then your novel becomes tedious in the way of Richard Nixon’s masterpiece of self-justification, his Six Crises, despite his undeniable brilliance as a writer. One can neither bully, brag , nor whine with artistic dignity.
I am writing about what I know right now, for I was guilty of this in my twenties. I have taken those novels and made sure they disappeared. And I am thankful no publisher took me up on them! The novels I write now have protagonists who do things I wouldn’t do, and who don’t do things that I would do. They are people, not puppets.
Autobiography in general is a suspect genre, usually more of a desperate courtroom plea than an ordering of history in written form. And anyway, no one can write a true autobiography, because the story isn’t finished until the storyteller is beyond words. A memoir is different: there you are describing what the world was like around you at a certain time. Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast is a superb example. So are Gerald Durrell’s wonderful comic tellings of his childhood days with his peculiar family. (Now, it turns out that Durrell took some creative liberties with the facts to make a better story out of his memoirs. This is fine; they were not really meant to be about the Durrells.)
If you want to write a good novel, don’t write about yourself; write about the world around you. Distill what you have seen into a tale that reveals that world’s essence–distillation is what reveals the essence of things, the way chemical distillation changes crude oil into the hundred thousand compounds that shape contemporary living. And, as there is in oil, there may be toxic elements in your story that you didn’t think of when you began the process. Those, too, are part of the novel. Sometimes the most important part. Be willing to change–to transform!–the merely historical elements of your story so that the work is no longer the crude glop that festered unseen below the surface for time out of mind. Your novel should explore the harmonies of human contact, and reveal what it is like to live in the foreknowledge of death.
This is the only story, but its details are infinite.
To arrange those details so they create new lives out of old debris is your task. You will have to let the imaginary characters speak their real concerns, not yours. If you do a good job, the story will become a world bigger than you are. But you will have to get over yourself to do it. You’re a novelist now. It’s not about you.
This piece was written for and appears in A Writer’s Path as well.