I’ve just finished the first draft of my latest Hakim and Arnold book. It needs a lot of work but I’m reasonably happy with what I’ve done so far. However while I was writing the book and now it’s sitting about awaiting tinkering, editing and changing, I was and remain, disturbed by it.
Not to give too much away, one of the characters lives a life that is dominated by the past. For all sorts of reasons, his present is painful and anxious and so when what he thinks is a lifeline is thrown from the past, he grabs it with both hands. Although what this subsequently makes him do is wrong, the actual grabbing is difficult for me to condemn. This is because I can empathise with him all too easily because, in a way, this part of his life mirrors my own.
When I started this book, I didn’t make a conscious decision to write about my own feelings in any way. The novel was and is, a story that I have made up for the entertainment of others. It isn’t real life. But somehow, and not for the first time, an aspect of real life has seeped in, suddenly exposing a corner of my own life that, as a good British person I know, should be hidden.
It’s a problem for a lot of writers. You need to know about a certain emotion or problem, you yourself currently have, and so what do you do? Of course you use the source that is nearest to hand, which is yourself. And often this is fine, especially if you are investigating being happy and contented. But if you need to look at someone’s past through the prism of a toxic present, then that can be dangerous as I now know. It’s OK if your present is happy but if it isn’t…
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to throw myself under a train because one of my characters is having the sort of bad time that is roughly equivalent to my own. But I’m getting a bit tired of feeling flat and hopeless. Maybe it will pass in the editing and rewriting process? I hope so although I do think that until my own problems are addressed it probably won’t.
So what’s the point, I hear you say, of disclosing the fact that my life is miserable right now? I didn’t need to share this. No I don’t but I chose to do so as a salutary warning. When you use yourself as source material, make sure that you do so with your eyes open. When I started this book, which by the way I have huge confidence in as a work of very powerful fiction, I knew I wasn’t happy but I didn’t know just how sad I really was. I wrote my haunted character with great empathy and aplomb but I also channelled his feelings rather too closely too. I am not the first author to do this and I know that I won’t be the last. But this experience will take a bit of time to fade and I find myself wishing, now, that I hadn’t mined my own life quite so deeply as I did.
That said, I will survive (as Gloria Gaynor once said) and I’m sure the time will come when I will be glad that I went into my own soul so comprehensively for the sake of the book. We all after all, like to do a good job. But will I do it again? I don’t know. I like to think that maybe I have learnt my lesson and will now leave my poor psyche alone for a while. But I am painfully aware of the fact that I probably won’t do that. I also know never to say, never say never.