Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Guest Post: The Reader and the Writer’s Imagination

Hello, friends! Back with another guest post by a wonderful writer and dear friend, Miryam Sivan, whose new novel, Make It Concrete,  just came out last month. It's a beautiful novel, and I highly recommend it! By the way, I took the above photo during one of Miryam's and my long walks, during which we talk about everything under the sun. This one was taken in Central Park on a hazy summer afternoon, a good time to brood over the power of the imagination.

In this post, she poses fascinating questions about points where "reality" and our lived experiences intersect with the imagined experience of "fiction." Where does one end, and the other begin? And does it matter? These questions are in my mind as I navigate the final stretch of my novel-in-progress. More on that in the next post! For now, enjoy Miryam on The Reader and the Writer's Imagination!

Recently I read a book review that praised the writer’s autofiction.  That got me thinking about that genre and what we once called autobiographical fiction. After a little reading I realized there’s a bit of a muddle. To some degree the new name (since the 1970s) of autofiction has added cache to the older familiar genre of autobiographical fiction. Autofiction sounds sexier and often includes the voyeuristic meta aspect: writers writing about writers writing. I get it. And I like it, if, like with Philip Roth’s Zuckerman trilogy, the writing itself is superb. And in general, since I don’t read to mine a writer’s private life, I don’t care what’s auto and what’s not. I care about the quality of the sentences themselves, the story being told, the larger philosophical or political concerns of the text.
Not caring about sources is reflected in my own fiction. I do not have an agenda to use or not use my life’s experiences. And I do and don’t use them. For the most part though, I don’t, at least not in terms of plot and characters. The most deliberate mining of my own life comes in the emotional lives of my characters. Which is also where the deepest motives for writing a story are revealed. Example: if I write about violence against women, then I will use the feelings I may have had in relation to a specific incident (either a news item or from someone’s life I know) to express my character’s pain, fear, anger, helplessness, etc. What exactly happened, to whom, and how I make up, imagine, if you will, but the emotional landscape is often already known. Though even then it’s blended with the imagined….
I am less interested in what happened and more interested in what might happen. Sticking to a character based on myself, seems to me infinitely boring, limiting, and frankly I don't think I could pull it off.... I would be hyperconscious all the time of how I was molding and resisting strands of what I think are true, want to be true, want to erase – both from memory and certainly from the page. I know how profound influential unconscious bias is and would track it in my sentences. This would compromise my great pleasure in the freedom of making stuff up. And while I believe in the wonderful work of psychotherapy, I don’t want it to become part of my writing process.
The irony of course is that no matter how imagined, readers who know me think much of the material in my fiction is autobiographical. In my recently published novel, Make it Concrete, my protagonist, Isabel, has a boyfriend, a lover near home, a lover in a foreign country, and is capable of picking up a sexual adventure in her travels depending on her mood. Not only have certain readers expressed discomfort with her sex life (another subject I intend to write about soon), but they assume it reflects my life style. “I wish,” I respond, not going defensive on Isabel’s account. Je ne suis pas Isabel Toledo! And stop looking at me like I’ve invited you into my bedroom. Same goes with many details of the book. Isabel has 3 children. I have one. One person actually asked me how I was able to write about this. Huh? Or how about Isabel’s dog? She has a small Jack Russell terrier while I have always had large dogs. Someone said to me that they knew I’d put my dog in my book. Guess all dogs look alike to some people.
Back to emotional mining. I am the mother of one and can easily imagine being the mother of three. I am a dog lover and size in fiction or in real life doesn’t matter. I know this emotional bond very well. It’s not hard to put it on the page and it’s certainly not hard to imagine loving a dog with a very different temperament than the ones I’ve been lucky to live with. Luckily for many writers their readers are not always people they know personally, so they’re not subject to this kind of personal scrutiny.
I say all this stridently, but I don’t feel this way. I actually find it amusing, not upsetting. Even when I write imaginatively people assume I’m writing autofiction. And in Make it Concrete  I confuse them even more since the novel is about a writer who writes! Isabel Toledo is a ghostwriter for Holocaust survivors… something I did once years ago. Isabel has been doing it for twenty years and is on her sixteenth book…. like one child versus three…. So heck, let readers think I’m having fabulous erotic encounters with gorgeous men in unusual sexy locations. Yippee!

Originally from New York City, Miryam Sivan has lived for over twenty years in Israel. She is a Ph.D. and teaches literature and writing at the University of Haifa. Many of her short stories have come out in American and British journals and two were staged. SNAFU and Other Stories, was published in 2014 (Cuidono Press), and her novel, Make it Concrete was published in 2019 (Cuidono Press). Sivan is currently revising a novel, Love Match, a Romeo and Juliet story set in Haifa, and is working on a screenplay about Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s. https://www.miryamsivan.com/

No comments: