Editor’s Note: For the first several months of 2022, we’ll be celebrating some of our favorite work from the last fourteen years in a series of “From the Archives” posts.
Today’s feature is the first installment of associate editor Steven Wingate’s craft series, Quotes & Notes. Each essay responds to a (famous or obscure) dictum on writing from a prominent fiction writer. This essay originally appeared in two parts. Part I was published on June 10 of 2009, and Part II appeared a month later on July 10 of 2009. They are collected here together.
“You are not your characters, but your characters are you.”
– Raymond Carver
Let’s face it: fiction writers do not have a reputation for being carefree, untroubled souls. Even our fellow artists consider us broody navel-gazers who are overly introspective and perhaps even in love with our own problems. (We do, after all, tend to keep writing about characters whose psychic profiles overlap significantly with ours.) The general public is hardly more charitable, usually assuming that (a) we study them to gather material, or (b) we all write thinly-veiled autobiography, and are so blind as to not even be aware of it.
Do we deserve assessments like these? Probably so. We spend a great deal of our time listening to (and talking back to) characters who do not exist, a behavior which might lead to incarceration if the grand tradition of fiction did not justify it. We create our personal bag of archetypal characters, many of whom resemble each other, and we often aren’t aware of their similarities until (a) we have worked with the characters for years, or (b) someone else brings those similarities to our attention.
When we write fiction, whether of a literary stripe or in the genres, we are bound to run up against the truth of Raymond Carver’s dictum. All of our characters—whether they arise from our imaginations, from real-life individuals, or from the conventions of a genre—are determined by the scope of what we ourselves are able to envision. We can move them to places we have never lived, in centuries yet unseen, and they will still be bound by the restrictions of our own emotionality. We can sail them down the Amazon in tuxedos if we wish, but our characters will always experience life through the lenses we make for them, seeing only those colors in the spectrum that we can see.
But seeing a color in a spectrum and discerning it with the mind are entirely different actions, which is why the relationship between our authorial psyches and our characters’ psyches is so unclear and rich. Our characters can see hues that we are not aware of seeing, and for this we should be grateful. It means that our character set is not limited by what we are, but by what we are capable of being—a vastly larger pool that leads to a richer experience for both writer and reader. But in order to get into this larger pool, we need to resist the temptation to embrace only the second half of Carver’s quote, simply accepting that our characters will always be us. This can be a dangerous and too-comforting fact when considered on its own, lulling us into a malaise that keeps us from working to make our characters unique and full-bodied.
But here the first half of Carver’s dictum—You are not your characters—puts the lie to any facile interpretations. If our characters are us but we are not them, there is a necessary gap between us and those we create on the page, and this gap is of supreme importance to the practice of fiction. Carver’s observation is not a free pass on the task of forging characters that are discrete from (though admittedly spawned by) the authorial self, but an invitation to throw ourselves into an author/character vortex that becomes less clear the longer we look at it, and that gives us more freedom the longer we cultivate its paradox.
In this vortex, each of our characters can see aspects of the spectrum that their authors can’t—at least not all the time. They embody what we might become, what we are afraid of becoming, what we have missed the chance to become, etc. It’s as if some aspect of ourselves has jumped into a petri dish and become a full human being with its own wants, confusions, and contradictions. By exploring these characters on the page, we naturally learn more about the world and about ourselves through their eyes. It might be as simple as learning a certain cuisine because we want to know how a character cooks it, or as complex as discovering how our childhood fears have influenced our choice of adult friends. I suspect and hope that all fiction writers have experienced this, and I don’t believe it’s trivial. The time we spend alone and in silence naturally leads us to grope toward self-understanding, and that groping itself is what pulled many of us into writing to begin with.
The specter of self-understanding is always there, underneath the surface of what we do, and we should feel free to recognize its imprints on our lives and work when we see it. Recently, when looking at some old (mostly unpublished) fiction, I noticed several male characters who either work with wood or have fathers who do. I know that this isn’t just me bleeding into my characters because my father could barely pick up a saw without swearing, and I myself exult over simply cutting a 2 x 4 straight. But this recurring character has, through iteration and time, moved out of my imagination and into my consciousness. What these woodworking characters are trying to tell me, I don’t know and can’t know, but chances are that I won’t come up with any new ones. They aren’t coming out of the vortex anymore, and any not already “alive” would feel like stock characters. I am sad about this, but must accept that their rising from my imagination to my mind is part of the fiction process—a necessary by-product of the interaction between me and the characters who carry my psychic DNA.
For years I was deeply ashamed of moments of realization like this. I tried to bury them, as if what was once hidden needed to remain so forever in order for me to create. (By the same logic, some writers won’t undergo psychoanalysis or counseling for fear of destroying their creativity.) But lately I’ve been seeing it differently. When the worm of the self burrows into the muddle of our lives, it sometimes digs its way back to the surface again and bring hidden things to light. When that happens we can either (a) lament that we have lost a rich source of characters, or (b) acknowledge that the worm is set loose again to find new characters to burrow through. In this way we can have our cake and eat it too: we can be in love with our problems (as we are often accused of) and yet not have to stay in love with the same problems forever.
Of course it isn’t that simplistic. But if we approach the practice of fiction sincerely, we can’t stop these self-understandings from happening any more than we can try to manufacture them. Consciously engaging in this burrowing process will invite us to regurgitate our problems onto the page, which always yields dreck. When such moments arise, however, we should see the opportunities that they offer: refreshment of the imagination, new territory to plow, and perhaps even a reconnection with what brought us to fiction in the first place. Trusting the mind and imagination to work in concert as we explore the author/character vortex is no grave sin—provided that we let both mind and imagination do their jobs in peace—and it can keep us from repeating ourselves in ways that sap our energy. The question remains whether all this vortexing, burrowing, and self-understanding can ever amount to anything in a writer’s life.
But this is another issue entirely, one I would like to explore in the second half of this essay by launching from the words of Gustave Flaubert: “Do not imagine you can exorcise what oppresses you in life by giving vent to it in art.”
“Do not imagine you can exorcise what oppresses you in life by giving vent to it in art.”
Practitioners of fiction may find this Flaubert quote hard to embrace, because if we’re honest with ourselves we’ll probably have to make some difficult admissions. Many of us—especially those who fell in love with the craft early, perhaps under the spell of Austen or Kerouac or Salinger—embarked on the fiction endeavor with an eye toward self-discovery. Most writers started writing because we found ourselves immersed in the character-self vortex as readers, identifying with fictional characters so intensely (as we searched for ourselves in them) that it became second nature to live in their worlds. From there it’s a small but decisive step to the other side of the formula: entering into the vortex as a writer and deciding to participate in literature as a transmitter of emotional signals rather than as a receiver alone.
If this has happened to you, then you probably know when. For me it was in my senior year of high school, simultaneously reading Heart of Darkness, Miss Lonelyhearts, and Wise Blood as I caught up on my long-avoided English credits. Watching all these disparate characters try so desperately and dramatically to figure out their places in the world gave me hope that that I, a mere drop in the endless bucket of angst-ridden teenagers, actually had a shot of figuring it out myself. I wasn’t doomed to insignificance because the characters I read, even if they failed to find themselves, managed to avoid insignificance through their quests. By the end of that semester in high school I had decided that I wanted to dedicate my life to writing fiction. (Avoiding that decision for almost two decades is another story.) I had ingested completely the idea that the manifold, incomprehensible self is most clearly apprehended in fictional characters and narratives, and however professional I may feel about my writing today, I am still that same word-besotted teenager whenever I put my fingers to the keyboard.
I didn’t know about Flaubert’s quote then, and I’m half glad of it. If I had been warned that the writing life would not provide me with the key to the self that I sought, I might have stuck with wanting to be a primatologist and never discovered the joys of fiction at all. On the other hand, I might have embraced fiction with more realistic expectations had I heard this bit of news, and perhaps not have needed such a slow pas de deux with the art form in order to commit myself to it. At the very least I would have become more quickly aware of a seam in the patchwork that is the writer’s relationship to his or her characters—one that every writer must renegotiate with every new piece of work, and even with each draft. But knowing today that Flaubert is right does not prevent me from sometimes hoping that my fiction will help me figure out my life, or at least lay it out on the dissecting table so I can examine it more dispassionately. Here are my neuroses. There are my fears. There are the strengths I don’t embrace. Isn’t that a reasonable expectation? Can’t I, after all these years of apprenticeship, at least rely on fiction to let out the demons inside me so I can know them better?
Sadly, all evidence is to the contrary. I can rewrite the same kinds of characters over and over—menacing fathers, art-struck women, proletarian social climbers, etc.—and new versions of them spring up again, with ever-new sets of psychic problems. Writing seems to exercise one’s demons more than exorcise them, so it’s a fallacy to believe that the exorcism Flaubert mentions is a necessary part of fiction at all. Most veteran fictionists don’t bother expecting exorcism, yet they still go back to the same caves where their oppressive demons live, digging around time and again as if expecting to learn something new about their characters even after decades of excavation in the same sites.
There is nothing faulty in this. Melville did it, Woolf did it, Flaubert did it. It’s part of the territory, part of the authorial schtick that the non-writing public labels as love for our own problems. But one can engage in this process responsibly and productively, or irresponsibly and frustratingly. An enabling attitude about it involves understanding what Flaubert meant by “giving vent,” as well as how this differs from exorcism. Venting releases excess energy from a source, while exorcism attempts to denature the source entirely. These are fundamentally different psychic actions, and confusing them does a writer no good. Flaubert’s dictum does not merely suggest that writers are stuck with their unexorcisable problems for life, but more specifically warns against a conflation of two disparate processes that might appear to be more related than they are.
So if we focus not on “exorcising” what oppresses us and instead on “giving vent” to it, shouldn’t we then be able to achieve greater self-knowledge without trying (in vain) to solve our problems entirely? Shouldn’t we be able, in writing about the characters that arise from our psyches, to consciously know those psyches better? Flaubert doesn’t offer us much hope here, and cautions us against using our art as a means to know our problems better. He doesn’t say “Don’t try to solve your problems, just vent them instead.” (In fact, he doesn’t seem particularly fond of “venting” at all.) There is in his words a fundamental disagreement with the idea of instrumentality in art-making, and from this we can intuit that any self understanding we achieve in the author/character vortex is a mere byproduct of the creation of art, not by any means a goal.
This leaves fiction writers in a pickle, since we invest so much time in understanding characters that irrefutably stem from us. Aren’t we all, to varying degrees of self-awareness, stirring up our own muck anyway? Yes, of course we are—but the more important question is of our intent and expectations as we stir. We can certainly achieve some mental clarity from our fiction, but doing so with that intent is as inefficient as digging through a mountain with a toy shovel. Only the most masochistic among us would attempt to exorcise (or even vent) oppressive personal issues by writing novels when a few visits to a therapist might do. And those who try to use fiction as therapy will likely find their work over-thought and trapped in the writer’s self.
Artists of all stripes have traditionally resisted dealing with their demons (and even mental illnesses) for fear of destroying their creativity, and writers are no exception. A little edginess, we may think, is good for the work, so we are tempted to cultivate our oppressing demons in the hope that they will fuel us to greater creative heights. But we are misguided to enter the practice of fiction with this intent, which is no more enabling by nature than a desire to know the self. Certainly we will see the self when we open up the Pandora’s box of the stories we must tell.
Flashes of understanding may come on the tenth draft of one piece, on the third of another; but this process is so gradual and so unpredictable that we are better off expecting nothing from it at all. The things that oppress us are admittedly going to be vented while we dig through the lives of our characters—a fact of life that Flaubert’s quote acknowledges, though it does not necessarily embrace—but if that’s why we write, we’re wasting our time. And we’re also reducing the art of literature to mere self-expression, which ignores its longstanding role in the way cultures understanding their world and their times.
I wish I had known this decades ago, when I fell in love with fiction as a lifeboat to get me out of my personal teenage mess. I spent a lot of time being too aware of my attempted exorcisms, and tried to solve the problem of myself on the page when I should really have had one goal: to render honestly the problem of the self in my characters, who are not me (as Raymond Carver pointed out), although I am them. Maybe it was no coincidence that I couldn’t get serious about writing fiction until I was in my thirties, by which time I had given up any illusions about exorcising what oppressed me. Maybe that giving up is what it took to set me free to plunge into the vortex of the self—as fiction writers must—but never expect to find the self lurking there.