Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Writer's Dilemma

Today, for some reason, I feel like going crazy and temporarily dispensing with lists/predictions/whatever else (though don't you worry, this time next week this space will be silly with lists).
Today, we're going to talk about me, and we're going to like it.
When I'm not trying to register infinitesimal movements of the Oscar-Buzz needle, or drowning in a flood of well-written academia, I do try to write for myself. Granted, this doesn't happen very often. Generally, where I am in my life requires me to write at least two papers a week, not always in English (Wenn ich deutsche Fans habe, hallo! Bitte schreib einen Kommentar, damit ich mein Deutsch ├╝ben kann!). So I frequently find myself writing lengthy essays on postmodern identity crises in European road-trip movies, or Barbarella as a feminist treatise on the male gaze, which, as it turns out, tends to drain me of my creative desire. So even if I have an idea I feel like expressing, generally it gets lost in a dreamy haze of MLA citations and "therefore, we can infer"s.
And there's another problem--My muse is fickle as hell. I don't know how to describe it. Though the word 'muse' feels unbelievably pretentious, I don't know what else to name that strange part of my warped little noggin which sporadically generates creative output. Sometimes I think I can only write when I'm feeling nauseous, exhausted, and emotionally turbulent. Other times, I've no idea. Really, there's no method or madness to the manic fits which let me fish something out of the wacky stew of disparate impulses that passes for cognitive thought these days.

The point: combined with my schedule and my arbitrary-as-hell creative process, I almost never write anything, and when I do, I very rarely think it's anything worth reading.

The counterpoint: I've been writing like crazy for the past few weeks. Like, 100 pages worth of crazy. I've finished a first draft of a screenplay for the first time since high school, which is both wonderful and kind of embarrassing. And what's more? It might actually be good. It's certainly not good yet, but I feel like I've got the foundation for something that might not  suck. Who'd have thought?

A problem: Now, I understand that everything any writer produces is implicitly personal. We are, after all, only human, and can only really relate the experiences we've actually had. And sure, maybe you dress them up with car chases and sex scenes, but even the most ridiculous movie is founded on the basic human engines that motivate everyday life. So I don't have a problem that what I've written feels personal to me. Everything that I write should feel personal. If it doesn't, I'm clearly being derivative, or unadventurous, or bland.

But where's the line between the kind of personal which every writer uses, and the kind of personal which might be pushing it a little? I have to admit that what I've written is in no small part based on my experiences, on real people. Hell, I haven't even bother to change names yet (though this will of course happen before this ever sees the light of day). Granted, the 'people' in my script are composites of a few people, or have been tweaked, or idealized, or warped in some way until they don't resemble their real life counterparts so much as a bizarro-world doppelganger of my own invention. But still, isn't it a bit strange? I'm not the first person to do it, but I can't help but feel odd about it. I also have to admit that a few sequences of dialogue are lifted almost verbatim out of my life, and a few scenes (one in particular) are drawn directly from my life. And this all feels strange to me. And somehow wrong. Maybe because it's too personal--like I've exposed too much for it to feel like anything other than a vanity project now. Maybe because I'm writing, in part, about real people, who might find it strange to experience being seen through someone else's eyes. Even if the reality of these characters is that they don't actually exist, that they're just shades pulled out of some half-experienced memory that have been manipulated past easy recognition. It's still strange. Unethical, maybe? I honestly have no idea.

Here's another problem: what I've written really could be good, and I very strongly believe that it has that potential simply because it came from such a personal place. What better can I write than my own feelings about things I've actually experienced? I don't know that I'm capable of writing a good war movie. I've never been to war, I've never felt those emotions, I'll never be able to really confer any actual honesty on anything I try to make in that setting. What I can do honestly are the things I've perceived. And really, aren't the most universal emotions conjured through the most specifically personal works of art? Though I hate using the word 'art' in connection to anything I try to do, don't all artists create things under the assumption that what they've felt and seen are universal? Sometimes I think the point of art in general is to bring a singular perspective to the emotions and perceptions we've all had before, and by making someone examine their own emotions through the lens of another person's life, you can create something of meaning or value. So maybe by going for broke and tossing my own life into a word document, I'm hoping that maybe I can say something that puts words to something everyone has felt, but might not be able to describe.

Or maybe I'm just being really, really pretentious.

So here's my question, and I'd really, really love it if you engaged with me here: Is it ethical/acceptable/right for someone to use their own life so blatantly to create a piece of fiction? As writers, are we capable of doing anything else? Or is it just a form of cheating? Am I short-changing my own creative impulses by yoking them to something so aggressively tangible and pedestrian? And is it understandable to base my characters on people in my life, or is it just creepy as hell? Seriously. I'm asking. I want to know what you think. Because I've written something that just might have the potential to become something good, but I might end up sitting on it, because it feels too strange to explicitly tether my reality to my creativity.

1 comment:

  1. My opinion - of course writers have the capability of deviating from their own direct experience... but I don't see anything wrong with reproducing moments from the author's actuality for the sake of new fiction (or even memoirs - what does it matter?). It happens all the time, and still makes for interesting material. If you thought it was worth repeating, well - then it probably is. Even if you didn't want to do this, I don't think it'd be possible... because personalities and beliefs stem from experiences and exposure. At least once you get pass this, you might have space to come up with other things. But meanwhile, go with it...