Sometimes we don’t recognize the importance of the most obvious things about ourselves. Just as we don’t really know what we look like—photographs flatten our faces, and in a mirror, we’re backwards—we often don’t see what gifts we possess. Any powerful, formative experience can become a gift. Your voice and your understandings are unique; no one else can duplicate them. Only you can tell what you know. So what gifts do you bring to your work? What are the stories that only you can tell? What sorts of people and places and events can you describe because of what life has given you? These aren’t questions to ask and answer once. We can keep considering them as we gain more years and understanding. Our knowledge can be used in so many ways.
Here’s an example related to writing: If a mother died and left behind a young daughter, the surviving daughter could explore this situation in autobiographical writing. She could explore it in a nonfiction work based on interviews with many daughters whose mothers died while they were young. She could explore it in a fictional character’s life, whether that character is the surviving daughter, the early-dying mother, a husband, anyone else influenced by that situation, or all of the above. Or she could use those emotions to show, in fiction, how a little girl feels when her puppy dies—or how a man feels when his wife moves out. The development of a story or other form of communication is fairly instinctual, but it comes from places we already occupy, from parts of living that move us.
I never understood this about fiction—not consciously, anyway—until my junior year of high school, when I was asked to choose an author and a novel to write about in depth. There were only two women on the list of 25 authors—Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf. I chose Virginia Woolf and her novel Mrs. Dalloway. I also read the diaries, letters, and biographies of her that were available then. What I found amazed me. The novel contained direct references to things that had actually happened to her and to thoughts she had written in her diaries and letters. This was so unlike how novels had been taught to me in school—as arbitrary, magical creations that arose inexplicably in geniuses. No. Fiction, and anything of great meaning to us, proceeds directly from the experiences and thoughts of our particular assemblages of flesh and bones.
I got another bit of crucial understanding a few decades later, when I read an interview with novelist Dorothy Allison in Poets and Writers. She said something like this: If you’re not at the edge of what you can tolerate while writing, you haven’t found your material yet. I realized I had to face some major features of my early life. My parents lost a child to a genetic disease shortly before I was born. I emerged into a grieving family. I might have ended up having the same disease; they didn’t know till I was nearly a year old that I would live. In order to explore this, I had to interview my parents, because I’d heard only a few sentences about my sister in my first three-plus decades of life, along with seeing several pictures of her. I’ve written about a hundred pages of a highly fictionalized version of these stories. And some things I experienced while exploring this material helped me portray the feelings of an unwed mother with a baby she was being pressured to give up in my novel, Lilli de Jong. Now I know that this and other facets of my life are not just “things that happened to happen,” things I need to get past, as if that were possible. We can’t get past the things that constitute who we are. But we can spin them into gold. Any formative experience is a gift. What gifts can you bring to your work? What stories are you uniquely positioned to tell?
Come explore these questions and generate new writing at Janet’s workshop, Finding Your Gold, on June 10 from 2 to 5 p.m. at Writers in Progress studio in Florence. And come hear Janet talk about her debut novel, give a brief reading, and answer questions at Broadside Bookshop in Northampton on June 11 at 3 p.m.