Friday, 7 January 2011

Can you be too close?

Welcome to Jerusalem! I bet you're glad to be away from the snow for a bit. We do get snow here occasionally because we're so high up, but haven't had any real settled-on-the-ground snow for a few years. And our cold winter spells are always interspersed with warmer, sunny days. We never have enough rain, so if you could bring some with you....

Coffee. I prefer instant, but we also have filter coffee. What I expect you don't want is what they call botz - mud. Black coffee, sugar, water, no milk. It's what the people who come to do work in our house generally ask for. They leave the mud - the dregs - at the bottom of the cup.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record (can one still use that simile?), I have to mention that I really want to write about social anxiety - to explain what it's like and why people get stuck in it. So far, I feel that none of the stories in which I've attempted to do this has hit the mark. I haven't given up. I'm learning more and more about writing and I'm still just as determined to do what I set out to do. But the question I want to put to you is this: Can a writer be too close to a topic to be able to write about it effectively? Does there have to be some distance between the writer and the topic? Does the writer always have to be on the outside?


HelenMHunt said...

Well, if you're sure you want rain - we have tons this morning (or should that be gallons?)

What an interesting question.

I think it can be tempting to put too much of your own thoughts, feelings and experiences into fictional writing. Then it crosses the line into autobiography or memoir, which is fine - but I think you need to be clear (particularly to yourself) that is what you are doing.

When I wrote my first novel (now temporarily abandoned) I wrote various things about my heroine's experience of divorce that were very close to my own. I did find that I had to keep reminding myself that I was writing fiction and that she wasn't me.

In my new novel, although I do have to still keep reminding myself the MC isn't me, it is easier because her experiences are very different from mine.

I also find that I end up doing this a bit in short stories and one that I wrote recently has some very thinly veiled personal experiences in it. I hope if it's published that no one who knew me at the time of the events concerned reads it!

I'm not sure that really answers your question!

Leatherdykeuk said...

It's difficult to write about something you suffer from and keep it objective. All my characters have a little bit of me in them -- just not so much that I take over.

Did that help? Probably not.

Karen said...

My first novel attempt was much closer to my own life than anything I've written since, and it's now languishing in a drawer! If you were writing non-fiction

I'd say the closer the better, but for fiction it can help to have some distance (in my opinion)

It's true though that your own thoughts, experiences and feelings will influence your writing, but I guess that's what makes it unique :o)

Debs Carr said...

We have sun and are in double figures, so it's not so terrible here today. Not as warm as Jerusalem though unfortunately.

Great question. I know that I've written about an ex-husband in one of my novels and in the earlier draft had too much anger in it. I've since rewritten and also had a little more distance emotionally, so have not shown quite so much anger towards the character.

I think it can be good to have experienced something, but better when you write about it if you have some emotional distance between yourself and those feelings.

sheepish said...

Hi sorry I'm late but I've been having trouble with my wifi connection!! It's warm and sunny here too, no rain so can't help with that. I agree with the other comments, I think you need some distance from your subject when writing fiction. But whatever you do don't give up.

Captain Black said...

A cup of mud sounds great but hold the sugar.

Can you be too close? No and yes!

No: For me, writing about something that you're very close to, or something you're profoundly affected by, is a good and powerful thing. It makes you write passionately from the heart. Your writing will flow, as you won't be thinking about the technicalities, instead concentrating on the emotions, the story and the action. Method acting, if you like.

Yes: Well, not exactly yes, but what you're likely to end up with is a very rough draft that will need a lot of work, starting with putting more emotional distance between you and your story. Then comes the real work. The assassination of darlings, the re-thinking, re-plotting, re-writing, editing...

In summary, I'd say that being too close is good for the creative process, but not for the finished product.

A great first coffee break, Miriam. Well done.

Jenny Beattie said...

Sorry I'm late. It's hot here in Bangkok too but most of you probably don't want to hear that.

It's such a great question. I think it's really tricky.... I don't think there's anything wrong with using personal experience but what's important is how you use it. Picking it up and using it as it happened wasn't a good idea for me. I found it creatively crippling. So use it but change it.

Denise said...

Oops, late again, need more coffee!

I think personal experience is a great basis for writing, as long as you can see how other people view the subject and how they might react to it. I think it's very easy to get locked into your own perspective when you know a lot about something. My criteria for putting anything in a story is whether that element contributes to an entertaining read? If you can make the reader react to your characters (good or bad) and want to know what happens to them, then it's working.

andewallscametumblindown said...

Many thanks for all these helpful comments. They all support my current thinking and plan for this year: to finish writing my memoir and to write fiction about other sorts of people.

Thanks, too, for the heavy showers we had over the weekend. If you wouldn't mind sending some more....

Annieye said...

I was sure I'd left a post last week!

I think an element of 'write what you know' is good advice, but as far as characters go, I don't think it's a good idea to put yourself inside a character's head. Sue Moorcroft gave a brilliant lecture at Writers' Holiday about how to get to know a character and their background, by getting someone to pretend to be that character and asking them lots of questions.