Writing to explore the self – or to escape it?

There’s a long and honourable tradition of writing about oneself. Many literary masterpieces have come from authors who choose to focus directly on aspects of their own lives.

St Augustine, painted by Philippe de Champaigne (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

The earliest notable example in the western tradition is Augustine’s Confessions (c. 400 AD), which records an assortment of his experiences and beliefs as he progressed from naughty childhood to devout maturity. Another landmark of self-scrutiny is the work of Montaigne in the 16th century: ‘Je suis moi-même la matière de mon livre,’ he states (I am myself the subject matter of my book) – and what makes his essays so mesmeric is their candid way of enquiring into what he feels and knows. ‘I have never seen,’ he remarks unblinkingly, ‘a greater monster or miracle than myself.’

Deeply personal reflection on the writer’s emotional development continues in the 18th century with Rousseau’s Confessions and his Reveries of a Solitary Walker, reaching its fullest expression in the Romantic period with Wordsworth, whose autobiographical work The Prelude: Growth of a Poet’s Mind runs for hundreds of pages of blank verse meditation on formative episodes in his early life. It was, Wordsworth admitted apologetically, ‘a thing unprecedented in literary history that a man should talk so much about himself.’ The word autobiography didn’t appear in the English language until the first decade of the 19th century, but ever since then the idea of writing to express oneself has enjoyed huge popularity.

Some of the most engaging autobiographies and memoirs are written in response to trauma. Contemporary prize-winning examples include Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s The Erratics, an acerbic depiction of her poisonous family relationships in Canada; Tara Westover’s Educated, which recounts in matter-of-fact detail her painful emergence from an abusive fundamentalist doomsday-obsessed household in rural Idaho, and Robert Dessaix’s What Days Are For, in which an almost fatal heart attack prompts a witty stream of introspective associations that include his experiences as a gay man charting a path through the jagged social terrain of late-20th-century Sydney.

So there’s no doubt that authors and readers alike can find great appeal in the act of writing to express and explore the self. Becoming increasingly popular during the last couple of centuries, it has established itself as a quintessentially modern genre.

BUT recognising the legitimacy of autobiographical literature is very different from suggesting that any other kind is illegitimate! A notion currently being advocated with alarming stridency and frequency is that unless writing stems directly from within one’s own experience it will be inauthentic, politically suspect and potentially offensive. This contention arises from a possessive, censorious kind of identity politics, and I find it bizarre. So female novelists should be disqualified from creating male characters? Someone with perfect hearing shouldn’t have the temerity to invent a story that presents a deaf person empathetically? An atheist mustn’t presume to write about someone with religious convictions? To argue that it’s ‘inappropriate’ (what a lazily dismissive cliché that is!) for a writer to try to enter imaginatively into the mind of anyone whose gender, ethnic background or other personal circumstances are different from the writer’s is to miss entirely the very point of fiction.

As Graham Swift, author of Waterland, Last Orders etc., remarks:

The whole appeal, the whole challenge and reward of fiction, lies in its liberation from personal fact. The very least we should expect of it is that it will, to use the common phrase, ‘take us out of ourselves,’ take us out of the place we normally and sometimes narrowly inhabit.

Most people value reading because it lets them escape the confines of the self, but the same principle should hold for writing as well. Rose Tremain, author of The Gustav Sonata and other fine novels, has said in an interview that when creating a character she prefers to choose someone unlike herself in gender, age etc. ‘If your subject is really yourself and your own life,’ she adds, ‘it is very likely that you will run out of steam,’ and anyhow to write only about what you already know ‘must be quite boring.’

Fiction writer Colum McCann emphasises that same point in his book Letters to a Young Writer:

Don’t write what you know, write toward what you want to know. Step out of your skin. Risk yourself. This opens up the world. Go to another place.

Lionel Shriver fearlessly repudiated the interdictions of identity politics in her 2016 keynote address at the Brisbane Writers Festival. She observed that fiction writers today are faced by a ‘climate of super-sensitivity, giving rise to proliferating prohibitions supposedly in the interest of social justice.’ As a result, ‘the kind of fiction we are “allowed” to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.’

Those thoughts call to mind a famously succinct statement by T.S. Eliot in an essay published  a century ago. He was referring specifically to poetry, but the same point applies also to almost any imaginative writing: it is ‘not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.’ In this context, the idea of writing to escape the self needn’t have a pejorative meaning. As Graham Swift says, ‘surely that initial escape is vital, and can be profitable if we are led back in the end, with something more than we started with, to ourselves.’

2 thoughts on “Writing to explore the self – or to escape it?

  1. For me, one of the most enjoyable things about writing is in seeing a new story arise with characters that do things that I haven’t. I wonder whether the default assumption is that if the story and characterisation are convincing, or if it is contemporary fiction, that it must be thinly disguised autobiography. And that the attitudes of the protagonist are necessarily those of the author. It’s not good to have this concern in the back of your mind as you are writing because it makes it hard to write anything gritty or controversial.
    And as for fiction that is set in contemporary times, where we live in a diverse and multicultural society, to write something that doesn’t reflect that seems wrong. Of course, all characters should be developed respectfully.

  2. That’s exactly how I see it, Iris. Especially troublesome is – as you remark – the common assumption that a character’s attitudes carry the author’s endorsement. Anticipating this can indeed inhibit one’s writing about contentious matters.
    Thanks for your thoughtful observations!

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