A Writer Reads: Writing From Life

(a post from guest author, Mary Burns)

Many writers use material from their own lives as the stuff of their novels, but there have always been some who rely on reality more than others and do less to disguise it. In my own case, in my Shinny’s Girls novels, the main character is a single mother with three daughters.  Because I have two daughters, I am often asked if Shinny is me. She isn’t.  Aside from the fact that we both lived in Vancouver and both have daughters, there are few details of life we have in common.  To me, part of the drive to write involves imagination.  I would rather write about an invented character, to strive to make that character as real as if she were an actual and not just a made-up person, though I can’t keep out of it entirely.  I do share some of her thoughts and opinions, however different our actual lives may be.

My StruggleIn his six-volume opus My Struggle, Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard has no similar ambition to create invented characters, nor qualms about writing his own life.  His narrator is named Karl Ove and the author has admitted in several fascinating interviews that much, bordering on all, of what he writes is true to fact.  I have finished only the first volume of this ambitious work, but I plan to continue and not just out of curiosity about what will happen next in the life of this brutally honest writer.  He is a terrific stylist. I don’t mean that he employs stylistic flourishes, the sort in which a writer shows off his ability to use language, rather that he has a natural or perhaps hard won ability to create a prose rhythm that compels us to keep reading the details of what has been, in Volume One, a fairly ordinary life.

His father is a teacher who starts drinking heavily after the break up of his marriage. Karl Ove himself has the typical teenage hesitation with girls, an interest in soccer, in music, though he plays guitar badly.  He leans on his older brother’s taste in music and art, he worries about not being invited to the “right” holiday parties.  He and his friend get someone to buy them beer for a New Year’s Eve bash.  He spends pages and pages describing how he had to hide the beer in the snow and how he finally finds it and what an ordeal it is to get to the party from his rural Norwegian farmhouse.  It’s amazing how compelling he can make that bit of ordinary business without seeming to do so. You’re thinking the beer will be frozen or his father will find him out, but no, they get the beer and drink it and belch a lot and don’t get too sick, and his friend’s father picks them up from the party.  The new year begins quietly and no one’s the wiser.  I found myself reading this with the same sense of urgency I bring to thrillers.

I heard Knausgaard read in a Youtube segment posted by the New York Public Library and his performance, rocking from foot to foot, reveals the rhythm in which he apparently thinks and writes.

But if it is true to the details of his life, what qualifies it as fiction?  My students used to ask that question, what is fiction anyway?  If it’s not made up, isn’t it non-fiction?  This is where the art of fiction comes in and suggests what fiction means in a literary sense, because in my view a novel or a story reveals a truth that is greater that the sum of its realistic details.  It is the way the material is presented that unravels the truth the writer wants us to discover.  His apparently effortless gift for structuring allows Knausgaard to not only detail his adolescence with an increasingly alcoholic father, but also to look at death in general through the specific death of his father.  While a conventional plot starts with a question that is answered by the end of the novel, here the novel begins with a rumination about death and our avoidance of it, and when you get too close to the end and the father dies, and his sons must deal with the aftermath, you realize that’s where you have been headed from the beginning.  Knausgaard’s My Struggle, the first volume of it anyway, is not only about his life, but about life and death for us all.  The universality of the theme and the brilliant writing make this a very good novel.



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