Fiction as Dark Alchemy

“All good books have one thing in common – they are truer than if they had really happened.”  -Ernest Hemingway

 Last night I made an appearance at the Jewish Book Council’s Meet the Author conference.  In part, I talked about the fuzzy no-man’s-land between fiction and fact.  As I see it, fiction is a web of imagined events and people mixed with real memories and emotions, shot through with a creative impulse to create a new story reality.

 LADY LAZARUS pulls much more from history than the other stuff I’ve written up until now.  I’ve mined my family history, Jewish mysticism, and WWII history to create a new world, populated by imaginary characters.  Do you ever worry you are appropriating stories that aren’t “yours” to write?  Picasso reassures us by saying, good artists copy, great artists steal.  But I am sensitive to the charge that I am taking tragic recent history and mining it to weave a new, fantastical history of my family. 

 My answer to this may be self-serving but I believe it nevertheless – though it’s important to be respectful of the experiences and viewpoints of the people in your life, and of people generally, you still can write any damn thing you want to.  That very sensitivity will give you greater insight into your own story and where it veers away from actual experience.  Just be ready to accept the consequences, especially the unintended consequences, of writing honestly and hard about what hurts (to steal from Hemingway here :-)).  Just as you have the right to write whatever you want, your readers can have any reaction they want to what you write.

 What say you?  Do you tread lightly when your writing is informed by the real-life experiences of other people?  Or do you figure that, hidden by the veil of fiction, you can follow the story where it leads you, because the alchemy of fiction itself makes the story yours?

3 Responses to “Fiction as Dark Alchemy”

  1. 1 terrilynnedefino
    May 24, 2010 at 6:20 pm

    Taking someone’s real-life tragedy and trivializing it is never a good idea. The story coming from your brain and out your fingers is, however, YOUR story. No matter what you write or how you write it, someone, somewhere is going to see themselves, their experience, their family’s experience–what have you. There’s no treading lightly. There is only going boldly with all your heart. IMO, of course. 🙂

  2. May 25, 2010 at 10:15 pm

    Hey Terrilyn — AMEN. No matter what you do, the reader is going to bring their own experiences, perceptions, emotions and beliefs to your story — I often say the reader is a co-creator of the story, they finish the story and complete the circuit by reading it.

    Thanks for your comment!

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