Browsing Jennifer Crusie’s site to figure out which of her novels to read next, I came across her recommendation of Ralph Keyes’ THE COURAGE TO WRITE, “required reading for any writer on mental health grounds.” I thought I’d better give this a read since I am always walking a fine line in mental health myself.
Usually I love self-help writing books and recommend them to everyone. After this one I would advise you to run. Away. Screaming! For starters, the book is divided into two parts: Part I, “The Elements of Courage,” or all the reasons why you ought to be damn scared to have anyone read your work; and Part II, “Coming to Terms with Fear,” or why it might not be quite so bad. If you can get to Part II, maybe you’ll find some morsels of practical help there. But first you have to get through Part I, full of horror stories about Pat Conroy’s family turning their backs on him and Robert Frost setting things on fire.
Maybe I had this reaction because I feel my experience is different from that of the authors discussed in the books. According to Keyes, these authors run into problems because they put very personal information in their books. They reveal family secrets, and their families are understandably upset. They write caricatures of their friends, and their friends get angry. If I wrote books this way, I’d be scared to have them published too!
But I don’t write books this way, and I never have. Once I read a dedication (I wish I could remember who this smart author was) that said, “This book is for all the people who think they’re in it. You’re not.” That’s exactly the way I feel about my writing. My books are set in a town much like Alexander City on Lake Martin, where I grew up--but it’s NOT Alexander City. If it were, I’d have to make sure I got every detail correct. I haven’t done that, because that’s not the point of the book.
Likewise, a lot of my teenage feelings for my brother show up in my book coming out in June, THE BOYS NEXT DOOR: growing up in his shadow, thinking everything he did was so cool, wishing I could be in his Boy Scout troop with all his hilarious friends. But the brother in the book isn’t my brother, because I would have had to change the story to fit him. The story is more important than portraying my brother accurately.
Non-writers don’t seem to understand this. After he read MAJOR CRUSH, my dad asked me, “Now, Virginia is you, right? And Alison is Belinda? And who is Drew?” Nothing could be farther from the truth. I can see the character Drew in my mind as clearly as if he were real, but I’ve never met him. If my characters were real people, my books would be my life. Nobody wants to read about my life. Books about my life would involve copyediting medical journal articles, playing ball with my son, and going to Publix.
Where are you on this continuum? Do you write directly from real life, or does real life simply pop in once in a while?