by Sion Dayson
Discussions of autobiography and writing often reference a quote by Flannery O’Connor, the queen of Southern Gothic literature and avid keeper of peacocks.
“The fact is,” she wrote in Mystery and Manners, a collection of her nonfiction, “anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”
On June 23, 2015, novelists Sonya Chung (Bloom’s founding editor and author of Long for This World, Scribner, 2010) and Jessica Levine (The Geometry of Love, She Writes Press, 2014) gave a talk at the American Library in Paris on “turning life into fiction.” Heading in, I half expected to hear the O’Connor quip at some point during the conversation, and wondered what insights the pair might unearth from the subject’s fertile, but oft-trod ground.
The talk didn’t touch much on mining material and meaning from our youth, however. Nor did it focus on practical tips on how to transform real experiences into story. Instead, with its mix of personal anecdote and poignant reading selections, the evening took a prismatic approach to the topic. Indeed, Chung evoked the very word early on, noting that the relationship between the author’s life and what appears on the page is more refractive than reflective. Readers may wish to match fictional events to the life experiences of the author who wrote them, but the link is rarely so linear. According to Chung, the question is not is your work autobiographical, but rather how?
Reading from an interview she had conducted with the critically-acclaimed writer James Salter, who had been somewhat of a mentor to her and had passed away just five days prior, Chung offered Salter’s beautiful take:
Everything you know, nobody else knows. And everything you imagine or see belongs to you alone. What you write comes out of that, both in the trivial and in the deepest sense.
For me, this encapsulates the heart of the matter. I love craft and technique; polishing language and worrying over sentences are my favorite parts of writing. But the more profound reality is that writing teaches me what I know, what I carry inside. Every idea, phrase, or character we conjure arrives from the interior—our subconscious, our imagination, our memories, our longings. We are the sole creators of each mark on the page.
Even that which directly enters from the outside—an insult someone once lobbed at us that’s remembered word for word, the dress she wore when it was hurled, the weather conditions, global politics at the time—is absorbed within. What we witness and experience informs our internal landscape. Shapes it. Affects what we produce. We each make sense of the world in our own way.
Fiction allows us to explore, Chung emphasized. One can start with a kernel of truth from one’s life, but then travel somewhere else with the information and see where that path leads.
Jessica Levine offered a great example of this in the figure of Henry James (Levine is also the author of Delicate Pursuit: Discretion in Henry James and Edith Wharton). She recounted how he went to “333 dinner parties a year” and collected stories from these outings. When he got the germ of an idea from someone, he didn’t want to hear further details. What happened in the real story didn’t matter; what it suggested did, and as a writer he wanted to fill in the rest.
Levine shared her own cautionary tale that illustrated the difference between making art and simply recording the raw material of what one observes. On her junior year abroad in Paris, she became close with an eccentric family. The mother, a journalist “tough as nails” who always talked with a cigarette hanging from her mouth, a daughter whose distaste for mingling with the riff-raff kept her off the métro, a Mormon stepfather who always welcomed guests by saying “enter and be saved” (as a joke or sincerely, Levine was never sure). The family hosted many gatherings with interesting people. In short, budding writer Levine was thrilled by the wealth of material that suddenly presented itself.
She wrote a story about the family, which was well-received by them. But on a return trip back to Paris, she started to grow annoyed with certain aspects of the family and rewrote the story, this time mocking them. Obviously, this second version caused offense, and it spelled the end of the relationship with the family. The mother agreed to meet Levine to explain that, as a journalist, she understood the desire to document events, but that the daughter would never forgive her. “And I bet you’ll put this meeting in the café in your next version,” she added. Which Levine promptly did.
Levine said this episode forced her to think about why she wrote fiction. She began to get more interested in the driving motivation behind the act. She learned to work more with abstractions— whether a character type she found compelling, or a pattern of behavior. The important thing was to isolate what intrigued her. Levine shared that she now writes with a theme in mind, such as fear or desire.
This underlined for me again just how uniquely each person works and that, as writers, we must find the process that speaks to us individually. The thought of launching into a story from an abstraction or sitting down to write with a big idea already in mind paralyzes me, for example. I start with the smallest of elements—an image, a line of dialogue, a scent. I must fiddle and futz with words for hours on end before I have any clue what is developing. Theme only emerges after I’ve finished a whole draft—and even then I’m not always certain I can name it!
Another Flannery O’Connor gem sums it up for me: “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”
Literature speaks to the human condition. Whether our stories are lifted from autobiography or invented from the deep recesses of our minds, we are attempting to understand life. Each piece we write provides a snapshot of that grappling, one that could only be expressed in that exact fashion by us in a particular moment of time. We come to the page with a vast catalogue of experiences and emotions and encounters. Like alchemy we strive to transform the swirl into something magic and fine. Can we ever distill to perfection, create an accurate accounting of our worldview, present a full measure of our truth?
No, I don’t think so. But what a valuable effort to keep trying to capture—and discover!—what matters to us, one story at a time.
Sion Dayson is an American writer living in Paris, France. Her work has appeared in numerous venues including The Writer, The Rumpus, Hunger Mountain, Utne Reader and several anthologies. Her first novel, When Things Were Green, will be published by Queen’s Ferry Press in 2017. You can find out more about her work on her website, siondayson.com.