By Izzy Ingram
There are few sentences that strike fear into my heart quite like the question, “So, what’s it about, then?” As someone who has loved scribbling stories all her life, I have always been shy and sensitive about the work that I produce. This reticence is something that always seems to surprise my friends, given that I am a chronic oversharer with a habit of relating anecdotes in unnecessarily elaborate detail and with theatrical enthusiasm.
So, when a friend recently attacked me with those familiar, bloodcurdling utterances (“can I read it?”, “just give me a basic outline of the plot”), I recognised the absurdity of my own shyness: why is it that I would feel more comfortable handing someone an autobiography, which details the events and experiences of my actual life, than a novel, featuring fictional people?
Reflecting on this question, the first answer that sprung to mind was that fiction is somehow more revealing than autobiography: handing a friend something I’ve written creatively makes me feel more exposed and therefore more vulnerable. A story is in many respects like a dream: although much of the structure and narration will be consciously deliberated over and carefully crafted, the other part of a novel is intuitive, unconscious, and impulsive.
Certainly, the heart of the story – the elemental idea which inspired you and got you writing in the first place – tends to spring upon a person almost spontaneously. A writer unconsciously feels their way through their story as much as, if not more than, they consciously think and craft it. Graham Bradshaw writes that “No novelist understands completely the springs of his or her imagination”: allowing your friends and family to peruse and poke at these springs is clearly quite an intimidating prospect.
I suppose my point is that, when we write creatively, we expose ourselves to Freudian analysis: we worry that friends will scrutinise our stories and try to locate links between fiction and reality – attempting to dig up the writer’s fears, hopes and beliefs from the soil of their story. As a result, we feel, bizarrely, less exposed describing the events of our real lives in the real world, than we do when we expose the unconscious world of our imagination through the creation of a fictional universe.
Attached to this is the concern that one’s friends will ‘read too much into’ one’s story, or read that which is not there. It is very difficult to write a story without a moral – even if that moral is a nihilistic message about the absence of morals and meaning in the world. There is always an ideology of some kind lurking in a tale, and I think most writers are probably afraid of their friends and family extracting ideas and beliefs from their work and ascribing them to the author.
Maybe friends will assume that the main character is supposed to be a reflection of the writer, or an aspiration: the person the writer would like to be. It is much easier to be explicit about what one thinks, feels and believes when one is telling an autobiographical tale: in fiction, the writer is much more vulnerable to misinterpretation.
Of course, it’s also more difficult to share creative work than other forms of writing because of the emotional attachment that writers tend to feel for their fiction. It is natural to become personally invested in the world you have cultivated, and emotionally attached to the characters that you have created. Indeed, creative writing often addresses subjects which the writer will have most difficulty discussing directly.
Good writing requires honesty: the writer needs to tackle subjects which can be emotionally painful to them, as, to evoke an emotional response in their reader, the author needs to elicit such a response in themselves, too. Emotionally charged writing is often the best writing, but this makes it more difficult to disclose and discuss it with one’s friends.
Finally, writing creatively is a daunting process because of the romantic ideas that surround this pastime. We like to imagine a writer sitting down at a desk in a small, private apartment, and passionately bashing out an entire manuscript in a single sitting. The first reader of this first draft will inevitably gasp, or find themselves reduced to tears, as they declare it to be a work of genius.
The reality of writing is, of course, rarely like this. Writers go through endless revisions, facing criticism at every new phase of the process, from helpful friends, and then agents, and then editors, before it reaches the hands of the reading public. This romantic notion of spontaneous genius makes it more difficult to face criticism of our creative work than, say, academic work.
This cultural fiction about the process of writing fiction forces us to set the bar higher than we do with other work; it encourages us to view any constructive criticism as evidence of failure, rather than useful advice. As a result, it is naturally more intimidating to show creative writing to other people than other forms of work. If the actual process of achieving publication is anything to go by, though, it’s that allowing friends to read your work is a crucially important and constructive stage, regardless of how daunting it might seem..
Image: Congerdesign via Pixabay