The adage ‘write what you know’ has been thrown around and debated in equal measure by far too many people at far too many points. Yet, as with all adages, it has an element of merit, one I have been considering recently, having realised I have been repeatedly employing an unconscious habit into my writing.
I cannibalise my past and turn it into stories. Not exactly ground-breaking, is it? But more specifically, people I have known and loved – or loathed – worm their way in, and it usually works incredibly well.
Should I feel guilty about this?
In an interview with the Guardian, novelist Jessie Burton says that:
“The muses I’ve had in the past have all been boyfriends – now ex-boyfriends. I was dumped on the telephone by a boy once. For seven months, I wrote poetry about him and ended up winning a London schools poetry prize. I don’t have any abstract muses, my muses are all people I have loved. People don’t always want to admit it but who you love can recalibrate your atoms, change who you are and those relationships – I haven’t had loads – have been reconfigured into fiction. Now my ex-boyfriend [actor Pip Carter] is going to be reading the book and going, ‘Is that me?’”
This is a technique we have in common, and my current work-in-progress ties together the events in my life of the last three turbulent years:
An ex-boyfriend shows up as a perfectly pleasant but distant musician trying to move on with his own life while hampered by the protagonist – who, I am relieved to say, isn’t based on me.
Someone’s dad comes in as a game show contestant whose TV appearance does not go to plan.
An old colleague crops up as a hedonist turned botanist, growing a mysterious plant that promises emotional salvation beyond his control.
A sleazy barman on holiday hits on a not-quite-married young woman and triggers a dissociative state she carries through to the rest of her life.
And an old flame – if I’m not too young to use that phrase – is stuck on a literally never-ending Tube ride, with only a bunch of flowers for company.
These people are all, without exception, unlikely to read what I’ve written, so I feel safe. Some make me feel more guilty than others, but maybe not because I’m using them for creative gain. It’s more that some characters remind me time and time again of situations in my life I’d rather forget, or pretend never happened, or wish had happened differently. I don’t want to be bitter or hurtful but I have been, many times over, and writing these people in feels like asking for penance.
Recently I’ve hit something – not a block as such, but more of a tedious wade through literary treacle. It’s coincided with a slump in mood; I oscillate between blaming it on hormones and stress, but it’s a nasty, pernicious mood that just won’t shift. I wonder, now, if it’s connected to the realisation that my work in progress is much more personal than I’d thought, and constantly dredging up the associated memories.
Regrettably, all this has hit as I embark on my last four weeks in London before the Big Move North. At the same time I am finishing the first word-vomit draft, I am saying goodbye to the city where it all happened. I’m not sorry to leave, truly I’m not. I will not miss London rent prices, and I never bought into the inspiration of the city schtick (a deep gulp of countryside air is akin to a tall glass of water for my soul). But I am firmly closing the book on this phase, the culmination of my teenage declaration that I would live in London in my mid-twenties.
The full removal of the possibilities I lazily assumed would always be there – the apologies I need to make but can’t, the things I would like to say but will never get the chance to – is difficult. I know it’s best to let them go and fade in the memories of others as well as my own. I know I need to look forward: being closer to my family, starting a life with Boyfriend that isn’t weighed down by bills and scraping together the cost of a return to Zone 1 and a couple of drinks, a new job that means more to me than a job has in years.
Maybe once this is published, the faint churn in my stomach will subside. For now, I need to plough on and get past whatever this is – keep moving forward, not letting my cannibalisation of the past eat me from within but allow it to nourish, to heal, and to give me the energy to go on.