by Will Viharo
The human condition is a complex, mysterious state of being, and writers since the dawn of the written word have tried to capture it accurately, to share with their fellow wandering spirits.
Misery loves company. But so does joy.
Since every person’s life story is different, they’re all worth telling.
When it comes to putting it down on paper, however, you have to decide: do you want to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, or an artfully commercialized version of it that might actually sell some books?
Some of you might be too self-conscious to promote your life story straight up, and prefer the filter of fiction. My only advice is to carefully walk that line between self-revelation and self-indulgence. You don’t want to bore or overburden the reader with unnecessary details that serve your need for redemption more than their desire for escapism. Always keep your audience in mind and put their interests first if you don’t want to lose them.
However, Art is often therapeutic both for the creator and the audience. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, that’s part of Art’s function, to make this confusing, often scary, and always challenging Life on Earth more palatable.
There are many ways of approaching this potentially complicated process, all of them valid, depending on your own individual perspective and professional agenda.
Change your tone
My stepmother Jennifer Brookins recently wrote and published a moving memoir about her amazing life, encompassing the years she raised my two half brothers and me in New Jersey throughout the 1970s. Those were tumultuous times, but she manages to find the humor amid the heartbreak, making her personal journey a touching and relatable account of one woman’s struggle to survive against seemingly insurmountable odds.
One of the traits that make this particular memoir so special is her creative use of voice, smoothly changing her choice of syntax and even her dialect depending on the period of her life in focus.
For instance, for her account of her richly rural childhood in the Deep South, she employs a Faulkneresque quality that also echoes Harper Lee and even Mark Twain. When the story shifts to New York City in the 1960s, the narrative takes on a much more contemporary, colloquial style, befitting her more exotic experiences as a successful theater and television actress. For her later years as a devotee of Far Eastern spiritual teachings, the tone adjusts to a more contemplative, poetic nature.
Embellish the truth
Novelist Joe Clifford, whose successful Jay Porter series began last year with Lamentation and continues this winter with December Boys, initially made his literary mark with his fictionalized memoir Junkie Love, a brilliantly written, brutally honest, boldly vivid, thinly veiled account of his youthful drug addiction and wild times on the streets of San Francisco. The book feels like a modern day version of Jack Kerouac’s semi-autobiographical masterpiece On the Road more than the more overtly self-referential fiction of Charles Bukowski, and Joe’s rough but invaluable experiences from that part of his past still influence, infuse and inform his other works.
Speaking of Bukowski, that legendary drunken icon is a perfect example of how to blend truth with fantasy, shamelessly exploiting one’s own background, but framing it in an entertaining fashion that provides a vibrant portrait of a single life viewed through a personalized prism, while maintaining universal appeal.
The artistic and commercial risk of this hybrid technique paid off, as proven by his enduringly popular novels like Ham on Rye, Post Office, and Women, all memorably narrated by the author's doppelganger, Henry Chinaski. Bukowski’s own literary idol, John Fante, likewise creatively chronicled his own early struggles as an aspiring author, conveyed by his alter ego Arturo Bandini in classic books like Ask the Dust and Dreams of Bunker Hill.
Bukowski’s poems and stories – like those of Joe Clifford and Jennifer Brookins – touch complete strangers with their veracity as well as their craftsmanship. The fact that these tales have their roots in reality only makes them that much more compelling.
Keep your audience in mind
People who know me personally notice some vague parallels between my life and personality and my fictional private eye, Vic Valentine. In fact, much of my own crazy life inspires all of my fiction to varying degrees, whether it’s a nightmarish noir like A Mermaid Drowns in the Midnight Lounge or a family friendly fable like Chumpy Walnut. I make no bones about it. But I’m also consistently conscious of the fact I’m pitching these books to an audience comprised primarily of complete strangers, and my main motivation is entertainment, not emotional and psychological venting at their expense.
Many readers and scholars have tried to figure out how much of J. D. Salinger was in Holden Caulfield, or whether Philip Marlowe was actually a romanticized version of Raymond Chandler. Since The Catcher in the Rye and The Big Sleep are both told in the first person, it’s easy to assume the author is speaking directly from his own soul, masking real pain and pleasure with the fictionalized face of a colorful character.
We may never know for sure exactly how much of their own lives, world views, philosophies and personalities were shared by their creations. But it doesn’t matter. Because ironically, unlike the authors themselves, their characters are virtually immortal.
That’s one of the attractions of writing, to invent an alternate world that defies the constrictions of time and space. If you can somehow preserve the essence of your own experiences in your work, whether it’s marketed as memoir or fiction, those precious pieces of you will indeed have a life of their own, long after you’re gone.
That yearning for something beyond the mundane, to leave something worthwhile behind as validation of our brief existence, is something we can all relate to.
How much of your life informs your own work, whether fiction or non-fiction?
PHOTO: JOE CLIFFORD