Fantasy and Biography

This is going to be a short post, because I’m very, very tired today and I still have a lot of work to get done.  But I wanted to write about a blog post by Damien Walter: “Fantasy Must Be a Struggle With Life.”  Walter writes about a lecture by Jonathan Franzen that was reprinted in The Guardian, in which Franzen says the following:

“My conception of a novel is that it ought to be a personal struggle, a direct and total engagement with the author’s story of his or her own life. This conception, again, I take from Kafka, who, although he was never transformed into an insect, and although he never had a piece of food (an apple from his family’s table!) lodged in his flesh and rotting there, devoted his whole life as a writer to describing his personal struggle with his family, with women, with his Jewish heritage, with moral law, with his Unconscious, with his sense of guilt, and with the modern world. Kafka’s work, which grows out of the night-time dreamworld in Kafka’s brain, is more autobiographical than any realistic retelling of his daytime experiences at the office or with his family or with a prostitute could have been. What is fiction, after all, if not a kind of purposeful dreaming? The writer works to create a dream that is vivid and has meaning, so that the reader can then vividly dream it and experience meaning. And work like Kafka’s, which seems to proceed directly from dream, is therefore an exceptionally pure form of autobiography. There is an important paradox here that I would like to stress: the greater the autobiographical content of a fiction writer’s work, the smaller its superficial resemblance to the writer’s actual life. The deeper the writer digs for meaning, the more the random particulars of the writer’s life become impediments to deliberate dreaming.”

Walter writes about the two conflicting impulses that have driven his own writing. One is the impulse toward autobiography (taking materials from one’s own life):

“When I began writing I found myself tugged back and forth between two seemingly conflicted urges. One was to write about my life. My first half-dozen published stories, all now hidden on my hard drive out of public sight, were very direct explorations of the tough bits of my own life. These stories, recounting for instance the exacting details of watching my mother die of cancer, felt uncomfortably like bludgeoning an emotional response from readers. (I have the same feeling even looking back at that last sentence) In literary terms I’d had the advantage of of a traumatic childhood. I had a lot of dramatic experience to draw upon and wasn’t afraid in my early twenties to beat the shit out of people with it. In fact I enjoyed the sensation and found some needed emotional resolution in it. But I couldn’t avoid the idea that this was an unfair way to treat the reader, and I could see that this was a limited kind of writing.”

The other is the impulse toward fantasy (making stuff up):

“Fortunately, the other tug on my writing sensibilities was the urge to write fantasy. By which I mean everything from Tolkienesque high fantasy to Gibsonesque cyberpunkian sci-fi fantasy. It’s all fantasy to my way of thinking. These were the writers I’d grown up with, the imaginary worlds I had retreated in to as an escape from all that traumatic childhood stuff. But whenever I tried, or sometimes return to trying, to write fantasy as an escape, I found that what I wrote died on the page. I have half a dozen novels worth of failed fantasy that will remain locked away until and hopefully after the day I die. It all needed to be written, it has all contributed to the million words every writer must write for their apprenticeship. But none of it ever needs to be read. I can’t quite bring myself to burn/delete it all, but I could do so with no great loss.”

He concludes, “The stories I have written that pass my internal quality tests, and which I have therefore left lying around for interested people to read, have all satisfied both my urges for biography and fantasy.”

I’ve quoted so extensively from Walter here because I think his blog post states, wonderfully, what I feel when I write: those two impulses, which are not necessarily conflicting impulses for me, perhaps because my biography has been so strange anyway. So fantastical. I find that the only way I can actually write about myself, about the story of my life, is through fantasy. I’m going to link to two stories of mine that I think of as deeply personal, even though only one of them reads as personal, and both read as at least somewhat fantastical:

The Rapid Advance of Sorrow
Her Mother’s Ghosts

In a way, “Her Mother’s Ghosts” explains a bit about the more personal elements of “The Rapid Advance of Sorrow.” I also once gave a talk at an APA convention about those elements. The talk was published as an essay: “Writing My Mother’s Ghosts.” Maybe that conjunction of the biographical and fantastical is what James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel were thinking about when they reprinted “The Rapid Advance of Sorrow” in Kafkaesque: Stories Inspired by Franz Kafka.

Walter ends by saying, of Franzan’s formulation,

“Whilst it might seem counter-intuative to some, all the fantasy writing I consider truly great conforms to that conception of the novel. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings struggles with his own story of surviving the trenches of World War One. China Mieville’s Bas Lag novels struggle with his own story of living as an intellectual and marxist in one of the worlds great capitalist cities. William Gibson’s novels from Neuromancer to Zero History struggle with his own story of understanding a world reshaped by the emerging web of media he calls ‘the net.’ It’s the thing I find missing in most of the fantasy writing I encounter. However brilliantly it builds a world, tells a story, spins out remarkable idea . . . if the author isn’t engaged in the struggle with their own story, it all adds up to little more than a calcified shell, missing the fleshy pulp of life within.”

And I agree with that.

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4 Responses to Fantasy and Biography

  1. Emily Gilman says:

    Hmmm. I think that actually explains a lot to me about my writing has changed so much since, say, middle school. I distinctly remember spending hours in the computer lab after school in sixth grade, writing and writing the beginning of something that was going to be epic, full of made-up worlds and fancy dresses and all those sorts of common fantastic trappings. Now that sort of thing doesn’t even occur to me, and of the stories currently taking up residence in my head, the one I’m least comfortable with is the one closest to that type of fantasy.

    Part of the change, I’m sure, is that I’m older and my tastes have changed, but I wonder if part of it is also that I don’t see my story or my issues happening in a secondary world. What I struggle with is feeling like the world I experience is just a little out-of-sync with what people around me see, and that if magic exists it may be powerful but it is also subtle. I may be uncomfortable with Big Dramatic Fantastic Elements (in my own writing), but I’m even more uncomfortable without any fantastic elements at all. It’s not a story–at least not a story of mine–unless it has at least one.

  2. zm says:

    “There is an important paradox here that I would like to stress: the greater the autobiographical content of a fiction writer’s work, the smaller its superficial resemblance to the writer’s actual life. The deeper the writer digs for meaning, the more the random particulars of the writer’s life become impediments to deliberate dreaming.”

    Modern Humanitarian update:
    the greater the [auto]*biographical* content of a *non-[fiction]* writer’s work, the smaller its superficial resemblance to the [writer’s] *Other’s* actual life.

    Though reading your self-reflectiveness here is like a breath of fresh air, the currency of the modern culture, aided and abetted by digital tech, content and dissemination, is the cynical game that ‘someone knows you better than you know yourself’. The paradox, updated then, is that the greater the bio-graph-ical content (which I take to mean, bio = observable in the visible spectrum, and graphical = able to be symbolically reduced to a discontinuous, discontiguous, discrete, digital and/or linear point or function) the smaller the resemblence to an actual, dynamic, living, breathing, dreaming, person. Even if you could see inside someone’s dreams, you would have to hold yourself responsible for the meanings derived thereof. And only in a seemingly as-yet fanstasy world where people can confess their back channel dabblings in Othering and share with those from whom they ‘borrow’, can there be the kind of healing discussion that rejoins and reconciles what Jung would call the Collective Self. (One of my dreams, btw.)

    On a personal note, what spoils me for writing is how I see so many things connected and how choosing one thread to start seems arbitrary, and how putting things in sequence, leaving out this or that ‘subthread’ seems dishonest, juxtaposed with the impossibility of including everything – in written form. That linear writing, even hyperlinking doesn’t completely get it. When I do write (not even on a hard drive somewhere, mind you), I often shift between stories in nature (that often feel ‘shown to me’) that then serve as foreshadowing or tie-in with some other unfoldment. Parallel universes, perhaps.

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