Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Starring In Your Own Movie

with 3 comments

It’s a gloomy, miserable, depressing day. Practically everything I tried to accomplish over the week end has failed.  I could be the poster child for not worth going on with.

And none of that matters, really, so let me get to what does. 

I got an e mail from a friend containing a link to a book review (of sorts) of an autobriographical novel by Christa Wolff.  For those of you who have never heard of her, Wolff was an East German writer and prominent dissident who spend several years teaching in California after th fall of the Berlin wall. 

Then it was revealed that she had spent a lot of her time as a dissident actually informing on her fellow writers to the Stasi.  She was asked to explain herself.  She responded that she’d…just forgotten she’d ever done it.

Yeah, I know.

The review is here:

From where I sit, it isn’t worth much.  It’s mostly another flapping great attempt to ignore the obvious–left wing writer turns out to be a collaborator (or worse) with murder and oppression, but it doesn’t REALLY mean what it seems to mean.  There are nuances…
I read a million words of this kind of thing in pursuit of the rehabilitation of Martin Heidigger.  I feel about this the way I felt about that.
But what has me writing a blog post is the fact that my writer complained,  mostly, about how wrong it was for a writer to reinvent his/her own life in a novel, especially since writers are never honest when they do that.  They always clean things up and make things better and prettier and more defensible than they were in real life.
And that objection gave me pause, because, quite frankly, I’ve ALWAYS written myself into my own books. 
And as far as I know, so has every other writer I’ve ever heard of.
It’s one of the pieces of advice I give when I’m asked to speak at writer’s conferences:  for a first novel, write it in the first person and star in your own movie.
And, of course, I was no honest about myself.  In my first novel, I’m six feet tall.  I’ve always wanted to be six feet tall.  Patience Campbell McKenna is six feel tall, drinks Bailey’s by the quart and never gets drunk or fat, and I don’t know what else.  Bennis looks a little more like me–or me as I was in1987–but she’s got a fantasy series that outsells J.K. Rowling.
It seems to me to be part of the point of starring in your own movie that you fix the things that you don’t like about the way you are.  And for most writers, those things are the kinds of things I fix–height, weight, career success, relationship status, pets, whatever.
Part of the point of the problem with Christa Wolff’s novel is that when she fixed “herself” in that one, she was fixing much more important and disturbing things than a cat allergy that wouldn’t let her adopt a moggie. 
Turning your friends over to the ideological terrorism of a police state isn’t quite the same thing as making yourself twenty five again.
But the simple act of making yourself better as a character than you are as a human being doesn’t seem to me to be worthy of objection.  Most of us make ourselves better even when we’re just thinking about ourselves.
Some people don’t fix themselves so much as they fix the world–make it operate the way they want it to, rather than the way it does. 
There are all those Socialist Realism novels of the Thirties, and almost all the YA novels ever written.  Television tends to be like that, too. 
In a world of your own making, all religious people can be stupid and violent, all coworkers who favor the welfare state can be Ayn Rand villains, and that commune in the hills can run just beautifully without anybody going hungry or getting dirty or having fights.
To me, Christa Wolff already lived in a world that was false in that sense, without ever really knowing it, or letting herself know it.
And that seems much worse to me that fixing herself to be better than she is when she’s writing herself as a character.
At any rate, I intend to go on making myself look like what I want to look like instead of what I do, give myself a better musical ear and more adorable pets, and revamping my entire house.
I’m not likely to get to do any of that in the real world.

Written by janeh

April 15th, 2013 at 1:02 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Starring In Your Own Movie'

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  1. Point taken. The game we played at work was “who plays us the movie?” I kept opting for John Goodman or Tom Arnold. Evidently writers don’t think like that. That said, it’s one thing to invent a thinner version of oneself, and something else altogether to make your ex shorter and fatter, while suggesting the divorce was all his fault.
    My explosion comes at the Hemingway Point–when the author clearly doesn’t want his or her story to be thought of as fiction, but as a roughly honest account of something in the author’s life. When you tell a story both you and the reader know isn’t true, you are a storyteller. When you tell a story you know isn’t true, but you want the reader to believe is true, I don’t care about the disclaimer statement: you are not a novelist but a liar.
    Seemed to me that you had not crossed that line, but Wolf had–and she has a lot of company.


    15 Apr 13 at 2:36 pm

  2. I find myself wondering if Rex Stout was Nero Wolfe or Archie.

    On the Stasi thing, did she volunteer or was she drafted? It would be difficult to say NO if the Stasi told you to inform or else…


    15 Apr 13 at 5:17 pm

  3. Just opened my online newspaper and saw headlines about the Boston Marathon. Too soon for details.

    Curses! And sympathy to all those involved.


    15 Apr 13 at 5:22 pm

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