Sometimes when I see a news story or read history, I wonder why anyone is motivated to write fiction. The real world is so interesting, and sometimes so strange, the stories are right there already. Do we really need to create new characters and imaginary events and situations?
Of course, many works that are considered fiction draw from real life. The title character of The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James is commonly known to be informed by his relationships with a sister and a cousin. Many other characters in his fiction are recognizable as real people. Detailed descriptions of actual rooms of homes appear in a fictitious context.
When I wrote my first book of fiction, someone who knows me well commented, “Well, looks like you put about half your life in that one.” Few people would have known that, but how far can we go with such a truth? Is there really such a thing as fiction? Is everything we write a form of autobiography?
Another way to think about this is to consider the artistic concept of surrealism. In the most popular definition of surrealism, this involves creating art through the juxtaposition of what seems like irrational images that bubble up from the unconscious mind. But the unconscious mind is still you. These images are from you.
Can we transpose this dynamic to the writer of fiction? Perhaps unaware we rewrite our own story? In our writing we go back and choose the road not taken in our “real” life? Maybe through made up characters we are expressing our own emotions, or releasing hidden exultations, hopes, fears, hates, and loves and we call it fiction.
Is putting it on the page not the same as owning it, either as a wish or a fear? Could we call this an accusation from the unconscious mind, or even a guilty plea? Whatever you create, is it not you?
I have become obsessed with two brothers, William and Henry James. Born in the mid-1800s, each achieved fame in different fields of study and work. William James makes everyone’s short list of history’s most influential psychologists, laying the groundwork for others, sometimes called the father of American psychology. His younger brother Henry makes the same kind of list for the most influential novelists of the English language.
I am immersing myself in the works and the lives of both men. I practiced psychiatry for 40 years and am now trying to find my way as an author of fiction and memoir. Need I say more about the attraction to me of these men?
The question that presents is who knows best the human heart, those who analyze and study it, or the writer who observes and describes it?
In my exploration of the writing and the life of Henry James, the novelist, I have come upon one of the most remarkable books I have read, The Master, by Colm Toibin. The book is not easily described.
Toibin, Professor of Humanities at Columbia University, takes the voluminous information about James’s life and work and creates a novel that attempts to describe the mind and heart of this great writer. One way to describe the book is an imagined inner life of a very private man, indeed, even a description of the creative process itself.
The Master is not a biography. Some reviewers hesitate to endorse the book as truly capturing James’s experiences. Others, including John Berendt (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), praise Toibin as doing “more than observe Henry James, he inhabits him.”
Beyond the question of fidelity to James, Toibin’s skill and beauty as a novelist himself is stunning. Should one read The Master simultaneously with Portrait of a Lady by James, one might say that James inhabits Toibin and delivers through him the emotional intimacy and psychological subtlety for which James is known.
I read. I write. I learn. I’m in a writing group and I have four published books. I’m still pretty sure I’m not Steinbeck, but my heart and soul have found their way back to where they should be.