To borrow from the late 1970s – Out of reach is out of touch / All the way is far enough. (Ten points for the artist, song title and year please – and no cheating online!) But is it far enough? Or is it too far?
They say that the best writing comes from the heart. Writing from personal experience, baring your soul, laying your innermost private thought and feelings open wide for the world to see. It’ll make for deeper, more passionate writing, yes, but is it really – well – decent?
To fictionalise a real-life experience can be cathartic. Many, many people write not for publication, not even for pleasure, but as a means of exorcising their own personal demons – the literary equivalent of self-harming, I imagine – letting out a bit of blood in a controlled manner. Or is that just pure self-indulgence? And if it is, does it matter anyway if all you are doing is making yourself feel better in the process? Sometimes, it does help and if you don’t have or want access to counselling facilities, it can be a great way of getting everything out and making sense of life.
But by writing about your own life, are you maybe trivialising the experiences of others? The recent spate of misery-memoirs – fact or fiction? Or a mixture of both? Certainly some of the more famous ones were later debunked as sensationalism by the authors’ families. That seems wrong to me. Even fictionalising to complete anonymity (and possibly thereby distorting the truth further) may only serve to hurt the people you love.
Let’s take an example. I once went to counselling sessions for a few months. The how and the why of it is not for a public forum. It’s something I might or might not use one day in fiction, but I’d be more likely to take the experience forward rather than the reason. In actual fact, having never before understood the “point” of counselling, I found the whole thing rather incredible – talking rubbish to a complete stranger for an hour is an odd experience. It makes you stronger, teaches you that you, and only you, can be responsible for yourself and your own reactions and feelings.
So how far is too far? I told you something about myself, but we all have secrets. What if I told you why, who or what? That wouldn’t be right, especially if it involved other people – it might even be considered libellous. What if I made it all up? How would you know the difference anyway? There’s a thin line between fact and fiction and it seems to me that a great many people find it hard to tell the difference anyway.
When I have a problem in the day job – a purely technical IT problem – I have access to an international online bulletin board. Frequently I can write something up before I go home and some kind American or Australian will have an answer or suggestion for me by the time I get to work the following day. But more often than not, the writing out of the problem will generate the answer; by the time I have succinctly described what I am trying to do and what hasn’t worked, my brain will have processed it all again in the correct order and the answer will be a logical conclusion. I think often that’s what happens in real life too. Writing it all out, whether for publication, a personal diary, a magazine “problem page” or just for yourself, and the answer sometimes tags along at the end. In fiction, it’s not always the answer you want. But that’s life.