It amazes me that after all of these years spent writing in a variety of genres (novels, short stories, poetry, memoir, essays), I’m still learning about process and other writing-related things. Recently, I’ve been working on what I expect will become another novel. It draws on some of my childhood experiences growing up on the Canadian prairies. Of course, it’s no surprise to anyone that writers use such events in their fiction (and non-fiction), but I find that I get bogged down if I stay too close to the actual material.
When I’m recreating something I’ve already lived through, especially in fiction, it loses its appeal and I don’t feel any excitement in writing it. I write to make discoveries, not just to reinhabit the past. I realize that sometimes we need to revisit past events in order to make sense of them, especially in writing memoir. But in fiction, for the work to take on life for me, I must only use it as a seed that I plant and embellish through invention. If my imagination doesn’t get stimulated and involved, it’s a trudge each day to try and press forward.
In the material I’m currently developing, the main character has similar experiences to mine in acquiring a stepfather at an early age and moving to his farm. However, to recreate certain occurrences from that time bores me, especially when writing fiction. It doesn’t interest me to recreate myself in a character—though all writers do this to a certain degree, parts of ourselves inhabiting all of our creations. I need to step into a new identity and discover what makes this other personality unique.
Once I realized what was happening in my current work, I was able to let go and fly. Now I can’t wait to return each day to the manuscript and discover where it wants to go. The characters and setting are taking on their own life, very different from what I originally envisioned.
For me, that’s the main pleasure of writing in any genre: if I don’t learn something new, then it’s tedious and not worth my time or my reader’s. Writing needs to be about these voyages into the unknown where we make visible what has been hidden. It’s like fishing, lowering our line into the waters of the unconscious and snagging who knows what.