Monday, July 5, 2010

Should Your Readers Know You?

Self-portrait, July 4th 2010

I love it when someone reads one of my stories and initially assumes that I'm female. Or a Brazilian miner. Or a grocery store owner. That indicates to me that I've managed to create a convincing fictional narrator based on someone other than myself.

On the other hand, a lot of my most emotional writing is personal and autobiographical. I think my writing is stronger when I write from personal experience, and it is more emotionally satisfying for me to put something out into the world that does reveal something personal about my own life. (My first experience of publishing a short memoir was completely thrilling and terrifying.)

So, I often go back and forth about how much I want to reveal about myself in my stories. Sometimes I want readers to know who I am, and sometimes I like being invisible.

How do you feel? Are YOU important to your stories? Is it important for you to share your own views and thoughts through your fiction?


  1. I love it when someone reads one of my stories and initially assumes that I'm female.

    I get that all the time.

  2. For me, it's impossible not to let my own views and feelings color what I write, even if details about my identity such as gender or age are unclear.

    But like you, I also love the feeling of "tricking" the reader into thinking I am the narrator when the narrator is a person unlike myself in important ways. There's something impressive about it, like the girl who wrote The Outsiders from a male perspective.

    Strangely, I got the same thrill when I went out dressed as a man for Halloween one year and "passed" to the point that a girl flirted with me and a guy tried to stop me when I walked toward the ladies' room. Hee hee.

    Like acting or physical performing, writing is a form of art and entertainment. If we can make the reader believe something that isn't true, it's like passing a test that we have successfully created a sort of alternate reality.

    But I do feel most connected to writing that's personal and autobiographical. It's also the hardest to send out for public review, though. I feel so close to the subject matter that I'm not sure I have an objective enough view of its quality to others--and also, criticism of a personal story feels more... personal. I'm trying to get over it, though. My "Dear Hideo" story that Michelle posted on her Innocent Flower blog a few days ago is autobiographical, and I had nightmares about snipers after I sent it in! I'm never so nervous letting people read my fantasy writing.

  3. Almost all of my fiction is autobiographical to some extent, in that I try to stay true to the emotions in a given scene. I've usually felt at least some analogue of whatever emotions I'm portraying.

    And yes, the stories I choose to write tell a lot about me, for those who care to psychoanalyze. But... the hell with it. I'm not apologizing to anyone for who I am. As long as the fiction works, and connects with people, let them think what they will about me.

    Their opinion won't change me. Just them.

  4. Haha, it's funny that I come over here after posting your winning entry on my blog (I talked about how I thought your entry was written by a female...)

    Yes, I think a writer has reached a great moment when their prose transcends themselves, but I know it's impossible for me to not let myself interfere with the story on some level or another. I think this is what I keep aiming for in my writing - erasing myself from it all because that would mean that when I get criticism it won't hurt as much if it's negative! I know that's silly, and I also know my writing is better (for now in my writing career, anyway) when I let myself color the prose to the point that it's recognizable as written by me.

    Congrats on winning my contest!

  5. I do let my personal views into my fiction, but I also like the opportunity to play Devil's advocate.

  6. Oh, and by the way, Davin, I LOVE your self portrait!

  7. Your self portrait actually says a lot about this topic. The reader may think your face is gray with splotches of brown, and that is true to the extent that it is how you portrayed yourself. Yet the image is also blurred/disguised/morphed. Nobody would mistake that portrait to be a realistic rendition of a person. Yet comparing it to your photograph, there is definitely something about it that is very you.

    Oh, wait, your question was about how much I want to reveal myself in my work. Right, okay. I think part of self-revelation is to seek understanding, a basic human need. So, yes, I do want to reveal something about myself that seeks affirmation. But always muted and only in bits. The private side of me wants to remain hidden. Probably self-preservation move.

    Wow, how needy and narcissistic do I sound? Oh well.

    I still can't get over how much talent can reside in one person, Davin.

  8. Cool self-portrait. I find that I'm a better writer when I include things that I'm passionate about. I don't think we have to write about our own lives but drawing from feelings we've had or that type of thing is a must.

  9. I had just read your wonderful story on Michelle's blog and that she thought it had been written by a female, so I expected that to be the genesis of this. But I see it's not, and I love that these two posts pop up without plan.
    I doubt any of us can keep ourselves completely out of our writing but we go to higher levels when we write by seeing through another's eyes. It gets complicated because there are universal truths, personal truths and alien truths. I'd like to expand on that but must run out to an appointment. Maybe y'all get it anyway.

  10. Being primarily a teacher at heart, I find that it permeates my work no matter how hard I try to keep it out.

    I feel that this is an important reason for writers to always seek excellence and breadth of understanding.

    We will inevitably influence the beliefs and motivations of our readers and should take that responsibility seriously.

  11. Yes I concur with the others: very cool self portrait!

    It's such a terrifying thing, putting yourself out there. I can only hope that the writing is strong enough to keep people from seeing exactly where and when the heart of me is coming through loud and clear in the fiction (of course in the non-fiction me coming through is entirely the point.)

    I'd rather hide but I know that it's not really possible.

    Part of me wishes I'd taken a gender neutral pen name...


  12. Loren, it feels great, doesn't it? :)

    Jeannie, it is like passing some sort of test, isn't it? And, really, I guess for the reader it doesn't matter whether the character we write is us or not. As long as the reader is convinced, it works. That's very interesting that "Dear Hideo" was autobiographical. I have such a weird relationship with humor and I've never been able to make it fit into an autobiographical story, as much as I'd like to.

    Simon, that's a good point, and I think it makes for courageous writing. Sometimes I'm able to feel the way you do, but other times I'm scared too.

    Michelle, I'm thrilled to have won your contest! I honestly didn't think I had a chance submitting the story I did. I like what you say here about your work being better when you let yourself color your prose. I think that's very important.

    Rick, Ah, the devil's advocate. I do that a lot. It is an important part of the cannibal story I'm now working on, which I really must stop calling a cannibal story.

  13. Yat-Yee, I hadn't thought about in words, but I think I decided to include that self-portrait intuitively because of what you said. It does fit in nicely, doesn't it? :P You make a really excellent point about understanding. I'd guess that's what most artists are searching for, even if they don't know it. I know I seek for that myself.

    Lois, I agree there does need to be some sort of basic and passionate connection. I think passion is so important in producing a good piece of writing.

    Tricia, thanks for stopping by, especially if you're rushed! I love what you say about truths. More and more I question all of the universal truths...I think my current story is making me do that. Sympathy is something all writers gain, I think.

    Wulf, Thank you for saying that. This is an issue I wrestle with a lot. As I get older, I tend to agree with this idea more, but fundamentally, I still question it. Sometimes expressing myself and helping the world seem to be two forces that work against each other, and I have to choose which one is more important to me.

    Bru, while I think it's very hard to hide, I also think it is possible among the very best of writers. Shakespeare is often given credit for managing to hide his personal beliefs very well. In a way I think that's beneficial because it can provide unbiased insight, the way journalism can.

  14. Maybe because I come from an acting background, I've always tried to stay invisible and let the character take over.

    But that can backfire. A journal that published one of my stories asked me to do a column, because they needed a spokesperson for the "southern, rural woman." (I'm an Ivy graduate from the urban northeast.) And a short story I wrote about an old man facing death was disqualified from a short story contest with the note "We're sorry sir, but this is a fiction contest. Personal essays are not eligible."

  15. Some of my stories have me written all over them...but others...not at all. A Bitch Named Karma was so fun to write because the MC was not me at all and I think when people read it...people who know me..they will be surprised that it came from me!

  16. Congratulations on your short story, I'm heading over to read it as soon as I'm done here.

    Great post AND great comments. I'm so glad I clicked over. It helps to know that we all deal with the same issues, more or less.

    It occurs to me that if my voice is not heard then there's nothing to distinguish my writing from another's. Since my personality and my experiences drive my voice, it's not only important, but essential, that I (as voice) shine through, no matter what POV I'm taking.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post! Olivia J

  17. Just read your story on Michelle's blog. The voice is utterly female. Great job.

  18. Hi Davin,

    Now, I know how you look lately?! I like the strength in your self portrait. Also, I enjoy reading this blog and all the comments. This is my first time to comment here, and I hope it's okay.

    I think it’s hard to hide even if we want to in writing, and at the same time, it’s also hard to reveal ourselves in true state.

    I agree with what you wrote about Shakespeare. It is interesting though. I think about that when I think of his life. I also think of Murasaki-shikibu in the same way. She managed to hide her personal beliefs, and her stories were opposite of journalism.

    When I think about Murasaki-shikibu’s writing, she did show her vulnerability in her diary after she finished her long novel, Genji-monogatari. She became a nun after writing the diary, Murasaki-shikibu nittki. So, when this subject comes up in my head about Shakespeare, I wonder if he had written his diary or not. And I start to imagine him actually or mentally writing a small note on his bed while his eight-year older wife slept. My imagination goes further, but I stop here. And my imagination also goes the other way. If Shakespeare didn’t even mentally write his diary, then that also reveals his personal beliefs, environments, and circumstances. So, I enjoy thinking about that although I don’t know why I enjoy it. Is it because I’m writing, or am I writing because I enjoy it? But do I care? No. I enjoy what I enjoy.


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