In writing about the way they see the world, are writers writing about themselves? And is this something to be avoided or embraced?
Arguably, even though we call it fiction, writing good stories and novels is about capturing truths, truths that readers can relate to and empathise with. In writing fiction, writers learn to portray the world around us. Are they also learning to find out who they are?
Everything we observe is coloured by our consciousness. When we write, we draw material from deep inside our minds, from places that make us who we are. Where memory, experience, bias, instinct, and personality lurk. What we write comes from who we are.
At the same time, we often learn to write fiction by fictionalizing ourselves. Perhaps that is why first novels are often autobiographical (or at least semi-autobiographical), such as Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. This is especially true of those first novels that go unpublished, tucked away in a drawer somewhere. As recently published novelist Jane Feaver aptly explains, “I had to begin with what I knew in order to make the leap into what I couldn’t know.”
In his essay in The New York Times, Andre Aciman encompasses this debate in his meditation on the “hidden nerve.”
He explains: “A hidden nerve is what every writer is ultimately about. It’s what all writers wish to uncover when writing about themselves… and yet it’s also the first thing every writer learns to sidestep, to disguise, as though this nerve were a deep and shameful secret that needs to be swathed in many sheaths.”
To what extent do we try to escape this hidden nerve, and to what extent do we embrace it? It is a complicated balance. Susan Sontag has suggested that we write to escape ourselves as much as we write to express ourselves.
“Some can’t tell whether they’re writing to strip or hide that secret nerve…” writes Aciman. “I write to reach out to the real world, though I know that I write to stay away from a world that is still all too real… I write to find out who I am; I write to give myself the slip. I write because I am always at one remove from the world but have grown to like saying so.”