I Know You're in There
by Rebecca Daff, BGWS Student
Attendees of this year’s Bluegrass Writers Studio winter residency were treated to a craft lecture by author Allen Wier. His thoughts on writing, and why writers work even when fame and fortune are far from guaranteed, were compelling. I wrote down as much as I could, but my skills in short-hand are nonexistent, so I eventually put my notebook aside and just enjoyed listening. But before I did, I wrote down something that I continued to think about long after the lecture ended:
“Beginning writers may mistrust the autobiographical impulse, thinking they don’t deserve credit for stories or poems they didn’t make up out of whole cloth.”
This quote from Wier’s craft talk stuck with me because I’ve heard some writers claim that their stories (or poems) are “completely made up.” The notion that writing can be separate from the author has never really sat well with me. Even in sixth grade, when I first decided I was going to be a writer, I knew my stories were an extension of myself. Aliens appeared because I was fascinated by outer space. Ghosts loomed in my work because I was sure my house was haunted. My writing may have featured scenarios that seemed impossible or far removed from my personal experience, but there was never any doubt that my fiction came from my own fears and preoccupations.
“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.” –Virginia Woolf
Woolf got it right. A writer may try to create something “out of whole cloth,” but what we create always contains threads of ourselves, is already in existence before it appears on the page. Pieces of us end up in our writing: past hurts, world views, our unique sense of humor—and they will make themselves known, intentionally or not.
Wier went on to quote Wright Morris: “To confess up a life requires the same imagination it takes to create one.” Wier used this quote in an effort to assuage any fears writers may have about writing the autobiographical, but I think it also reinforces the idea that “confess[ing] up a life” and “creating one” are essentially the same thing, that the same level of imagination that conjures ghosts and aliens is required to write a nonfiction piece about the author watching The Twilight Zone with her mother.
Where did the author’s ghosts and aliens come from? Why are they in the author’s work in the first place? Because the writer was thinking of them while composing, sure, but also maybe because she thinks about them often; they remind her of a more innocent time in her life, or maybe they represent her own vulnerability or the ever-popular fear of death. While writing, she may have wanted to get far outside of herself, but sometimes the more we try to distance ourselves from our work the closer we actually get. And the question, in the end, becomes not if we’ve written something autobiographical but in what form our autobiography appears.
Rebecca was born in a small farming town in central Kentucky. She writes fiction, focusing on novel-length work, and will be defending her thesis April 2016. She once rode an elephant and raced armadillos, though not simultaneously.
Published on February 09, 2016