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:
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.