Someone asked me, “What has been the hardest part of sharing a story that has a lot of personal experience woven in?” My answer may be difficult to understand for someone who doesn’t write.
Once I get going on a novel, my own experience becomes material for me to use. As I said in a previous post, it is no longer “my story.” As in any novel, it must have what all good stories have: characters we believe in, dramatic tension, maybe some light that shines through for somebody at the close. A novel is usually a lot more ordered than our real lives. So I write, and to make it a good story, where I need to go next is pretty much intuitive: there are real events and imaginary ones that “come” to me, and I don’t differentiate. It’s like I’m building a house: I just haul over what I need next to try to keep the structure from falling down.
And maybe there’s another reason writers write as opposed to telling a support group the truth of their troubles as they see it: In a story, what has happened can be transformed into how it might happen. People still struggling in the writer’s real world can, in this invented story, make some small move that leads us all to believe recovery is possible.
But — and here’s what turns out to be the hardest part, and maybe if I’d fully faced these consequences, I wouldn’t have written Night Navigation — though this house I built looks to me like a basically new building of my design, for my family members and intimate others, it feels like I have stolen things that belonged to them, that I have in some cases revealed to the world their innermost secrets. A betrayal of profound proportions.
And indeed, now that I look at the story through their eyes, I have to face the fact that for them this is true. A complicated moral issue.
If one doesn’t write, I think the easy answer is clear: “Don’t steal.” But the disturbing answer for me is that if I hadn’t used some of the “real,” then I never could have told the story of Night Navigation. And I believe it is a story worth knowing, both for parents and children who have had similar experiences, and for those who haven’t.