Friday, 20 February 2015

Write what you know or write what you can imagine?

Here’s a guest blog, by Science Fiction Romance writer Helena Puumala, on the subject of “write what you know” vs “write what your imagination comes up with”.  She is the creator of the SF/Romance series “Kati of Terra” (books 1 to 3) and “The Witches’ Stones (book 1 available, book 2 to come out soon), as well as a number of short stories, about evenly split between Romance, Paranormal, and Children’s stories.


GUEST BLOG, by SF and Romance writer Helena Puumala: Is the Process of Writing Autobiography or Imagination?

A question which often comes up in discussing writing with readers and would be fiction writers is:  How autobiographical are an author’s books, or, how autobiographical should they be?

The answer is fairly simple for those writers who write what is termed “Memoirs”; the readers expect them to hew at least somewhat close to real events, although if the author uses the term “fictionalized’ in his or her description of the book, he/she has more leeway. 

Genre fiction would be at the other end of the spectrum—it’s all made up by the author, presumably, at least.
Other than that, much depends upon the individual writer.

Teachers of creative writing (I have been told—I made, in my day, something of a fetish of avoiding creative writing classes) tell their students to “write what they know”.  That leads to autobiographical material.  Mine your past, your family, friends, neighbours, school days, old jobs, and so forth.  Describe what you have seen, heard, or experienced.  Otherwise you might get it wrong, and sound inauthentic.  Do not rely on your imagination, unless you are writing fantasy or science fiction, and even those two genres have practitioners who would like to lay down hard and fast rules about what writers are allowed to dream up.

That’s all rubbish, I say.
If you’re an aspiring writer, listen to your Muse, consult what the nineteenth century Psychical Researcher, Frederic Meyers, called the subliminal self, trawl the ocean of the unconscious (as per Carl Jung).  That is where the best fiction is to be found:  the stories that embody the archetypes, the sagas that captivate people.
That is what I have learned to do.

When you read one of my books, or a short story, you are wasting your time if you are trying to figure out (for example)if Kati of Terra is who I was in my mid-twenties, or who I might have wished to have been at that age.  Neither notion is relevant, since Kati is a character whom I discovered while I was traversing the landscape which my subliminal self was showing me.  It was the landscape of the imagination, to be found in the giant but immaterial pool of tales which, I suspect, is available to all story-tellers who have set aside restrictive rules and beliefs.  I also discovered that there was a whole universe in which Kati, and her companions, existed, and which I could “see”, and otherwise “sense”, by writing about it.

That is not to say that I don’t use my own experience to add authenticity to descriptions of events or situations.  In the first Kati of Terra book (The Escape from the Drowned Planet), I have a scene in the Prologue where Kati, her small son, and her in-laws are berry-picking in Northern Ontario.  Before they settle to pick wild raspberries, Kati’s father-in-law, John, does a circuit of the area with a sturdy, wooden cudgel, looking for bears which might also be gathering the berries.  I can remember my father doing exactly that when he came with the family on our blueberry picking excursions; after his walk he would tell the rest of us what were good regions to stay away from with our picking bowls and pails, because that was where the bears  had settled to dine on the bounty.  I made use of that memory to give colour to my story, but I hardly consider it anything but an insignificant autobiographical detail.

My husband tells me that he thinks that Kati, Mikal and Jocan’s trip across the desert and in the mountains on the planet Makros 3 is much more genuine because I was able to add detailed knowledge from a multi-day back-packing trip which he, I, and our son went on, once upon a time in Prince Albert National Park (in the prairies and parkland in western Canada), as well as some fairly arduous day-hiking in the mountains above Vancouver and other areas of Canada.  I knew, when I was writing, about the dirt, the discomfort, the struggles with hygiene that such travel entails, as well as the amazing (and sometimes frightening) sights and sounds one encounters, and I incorporated some of that into the story, to make it seem “more real”.

On the other hand, when I was writing Kati of Terra Book Two (On Assignment to the Planet of the Exalted), and I came up with the idea of having the investigators travel the countryside as itinerant musicians, I suffered moments of panic.  What did I know about minstrels travelling the land, after all?  I had never done such meandering, and I can’t sing, nor play an instrument!  I had a little talk with myself, and told the self to trust the tale.  Since that was how it was coming out of the big, immaterial story pool, surely I would find guidance!  Surely the subliminal self knew some personality aspect who could fill in the details!  And since that part of the story worked out just fine in the end, my faith was not misplaced!  Maybe if I ever do a past-life regression I’ll find a medieval minstrel there....

What about the short stories, someone might ask.  They are set in at least a more-or-less recognizable facsimile of our own, rock-solid reality.  Surely it must be possible to trace the lines of the writer’s life and psyche through these tales?

Once again, however, the answer is a definite “no”.  I have said this to my husband on occasion:  I write fiction.  My life story, or even fragments of it don’t come into it.  I have no desire to bore anyone with the minutiae of my life.  It has not been all that interesting, and it certainly is not now, when I spend large swaths of time sitting in a room, in front of a computer, chronicling the existences of imaginary characters.  The characters, not me,  have the interesting lives, so any reader is better off concentrating on the books, rather than wondering about the life story of its creator.

Having said all that, I am, nevertheless, of the opinion that each author needs to feel free to write as they wish.  Writing rules, where they don’t involve punctuation, grammar, or spelling, should be considered only guidelines, even when they come from trusted sources.  Story-telling is a creative art, and at its best, involves bending genres, and taking leaps of the imagination.  But anyone who wants to forge fiction out of their own life has every right to do so.  Just don’t expect me to read it—I’ll be digging in that immaterial story pool, or wandering through Kati’s universe, hoping to alight on another good tale!

Helena Puumala.

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