Susanne Dunlap

Writing about the hard stuff

In Books I have read, Historical Fiction, Random thoughts, The writing life on November 3, 2010 at 10:22 am

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.

Father of the RainFirst, 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.

  1. Deb Grabien here, logged in as one of those hard characters I write about. Bree has a cookery blog and I don’t actually blog at wordrpess, so she’s got the log-in, which is – what? Ironic? Something, anyway.

    You know where I stand on this one, so I’ll only say, yes, you write what you can handle, but in the end, if the story’s going to be worth a damn or a dime, it has to be true in the sense that the writer accessed something to get to it, and gave up some control of the world they live in to better channel the world s/he creates.

  2. Susanne, I love this post…I suspect that your own life and experiences inform your work more than you know…not the circumstances, but the emotional depth that serves so well in your novels is all yours. You are no coward. Even if your subject matter is not directly tied to your youth, your work breathes with true life.

  3. “But writing is such a deeply personal act.” – Yes. This means you write what you feel the need to write from whatever well of experience or wishing you want to draw upon. In the end we write what we need to for whatever reason we perceive having.

  4. Totally agree, Kimberly. Thanks for commenting.

  5. A moving post, Susanne.

  6. I loved it, Susanne! Writing is so personal and for me there are certain really painful things in my childhood I can never write about directly, but as Willa Cather says, “from a kind of self protection, disguise and distort them.” I am not sure if the quote is exact. Anastasia tries to make little worlds of comfort when her bigger world is falling apart. Your heroine in Liszt’s Kiss flees to music to escape from loss. You use everything though perhaps not directly. And it’s wonderful!

  7. Stephanie, you know your belief in my writing is really meaningful to me. Thank you for your kind comment. The quote from Willa Cather is so true.

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