Writing about writing

Bill Denbrough, a major character in Stephen King's "It," was a not-so-veiled version of King himself. But he was part of a compelling ensemble. It's particularly noteworthy that King writes from a woman's perspective particularly well. He's no slave to the over-autobiographical slant. Photo from www.grayflannelsuit.net.

Bill Denbrough, a major character in Stephen King’s “It,” is a not-so-veiled version of King himself. But he was part of a compelling ensemble. It’s particularly noteworthy that King writes from a woman’s perspective particularly well. He’s no slave to the overautobiographical slant so many authors have. Photo from http://www.grayflannelsuit.net.

I’m wrapping up a book review, among many other things, and chewing on one particular issue that comes up repeatedly in books I read. At what point does fiction about writers (and the writing life, et cetera) become too much? When does it become so distracting that we spend too much time wondering — as cliché as it might be — how much is fiction and how much is nonfiction?

A few prominent pop-lit examples: One of Stephen King’s main characters in “It” is a horror author. He’s part of an ensemble of strong and well-drawn characters, so I don’t find it too distracting. But in Jennifer Weiner‘s “Certain Girls,” our protagonist is plagued by the drawbacks of success as an author: She’s approached at a reading by her estranged father, a greasy amoral character, for money. She, herself, gnashes her teeth over the fiction-nonfiction question. She bemoans her loss of privacy.

We all write what we know, right? It makes sense that inspiration comes from places that are close to home. However, there’s a line. I’m not sure where it is, but some writers definitely cross it. I dislike fiction that appears too self-reflexive for the same reason I dislike many columns and professional blogs by journalists: It’s too easy to write about Me.

Isn’t the greater challenge, and the more satisfying result, writing about what we don’t already know? Doing research, walking in someone else’s shoes and finding a way to authentically represent that experience? Are we so spoiled by the self-published-memoir machine that is the Internet that we cannot step outside our comfort zones and push harder to think about and create something fresh?

It’s not that our individual experiences are worthless. They aren’t, and some of them might even have a larger purpose. But let’s step back from the special-snowflake notion that every big event we experience is a future chapter in the Great American Novel.

 

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