Marriage And Writing

The other day, Kate Colby shared another great post – this one on how being married has assisted and improved her writing:

Before marrying Daniel, I was a “writer” with big dreams and little action. Now, I am a writer (no quotation marks necessary) with big dreams, big actions, and big plans. Can I give him 100% credit for my success? No. I think I deserve I good chunk of it. However, I can say, having him in my life has been a huge help and momentum builder.

Naturally, everyone has different experiences in that regard. I have certainly been much encouraged in my novel-writing by my wife. She reads what I write closely, critiques it, and keeps me generally grounded.

* * *

Yet my chosen subject matter has also proven at times problematic precisely because I’m married. An example from a June post:

….the iPad packed away, the two of us reclining in the shade (good grief, the sun here is hot!) on loungers [next to] …. the pool, my wife asked me, “Did you get a lot [of writing] done today?”

Lowering a paperback I was reading, I replied, “I did. I woke up this morning thinking, ‘God, how could I have forgotten to include that!?’ I definitely wouldn’t have been happy if I didn’t.”

From behind her sunglasses, deadpan “Englishly” my [English] wife smiled and needled me, “Okay, so, what was her name?”

She’s convinced I’m writing a version of a mid-late 20s autobiography (long before I ever knew her) re-packaged as fiction, names changed, and carefully altered here and there in time and place. I admit there is a degree of truth in her charge. I’ve never pretended to assert the tales and characters are conjured up out of thin air.

Yes, there is a great deal of me in “James.” Yes, there is lots of reality in the women and their families. (Unsurprisingly an especial point of amusing interest to Mrs. Nello now.) And “James’s” family – including “Uncle Bill” – and his friends, and the fictionalized Long Island university he attends, all came from somewhere.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a couple on a date.
Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a couple on a date.

As my wife has read the novels, she has relished playing “detective” – looking to “unmask” characters and life references she thinks she recognizes. However, I’ve also cautioned Mrs. Nello repeatedly that doing that is not nearly as straightforward as she may think. The books are not a journal or a diary.

* * *

That said, we know novelists do rummage through their own lives and experiences to some extent. We know Scott Fitzgerald did. Certainly Hemingway. Jane Austen wrote about what she knew. Alan Paton admitted one of his main characters was outright based on himself decades earlier – and he didn’t like the character! My real-life novelist uncle has sourced much from his own life.

A novel utterly detached from the real world is simply fantasy. But utilizing memories for source material doesn’t necessarily mean it happened precisely as written either of course. Well, okay, not much of the time anyway. 😉

All kidding aside, reality gives fiction, well, reality. For example, in my own personal code, I have fictionally woven into the books a couple of sharp “slaps” at people I despise. Yes, that’s a bit nasty of me, I know; but only I know who they are.

Free Stock Photo:	3D illustration of a person being crushed in a vice.
Free Stock Photo: 3D illustration of a person being crushed in a vice.

More importantly, like Paton, I’ll admit as well that there are times I don’t like my “James” all that much. I suspect I’ll feel the same about him as I write the third book too. But I’ll leave it to others to attempt to probe what it might mean regarding the psyche when an author writes critically about a fictional “oneself”:

Now Mark blasted him. “You what? You told her you wanted to kiss her? What are you, twelve? ‘Gee, now it’s my turn! Yeh, I get to kiss Valérie!’ This isn’t goddamn ‘Spin the Bottle.’”

“I had too much to drink,” James stressed. “A brandy too much at dinner. My mouth got out ahead of my brain.”

“Oh, that’s so f-ing original,” Mark replied scathingly.

Composing these tales has led me much better to appreciate that what we see in most novels is probably indeed just the tip of the iceberg. Much more has likely gone on beneath those words we devour than we as readers ever fully realize. When it comes to my books, that is certainly the case.

It’s all so layered and complicated. Maybe I should’ve written about elves. Or space princesses. 😉

Hope you’re having a good Sunday, wherever you are in the world. 🙂

2 thoughts on “Marriage And Writing

  1. Hi, RJ. Great post! I was particularly struck by your thoughts on putting pieces of yourself in the writing, and your wife’s belief that your writing is a re-creation of sorts from your past.

    I think many writers fear others will have the same thoughts as your wife. They’ll think the story is our own, or the thoughts, or the beliefs of one character. I wrote a short story a couple of months back about a group of survivors of scientific experiments gone wrong. One of my characters, the main character, ‘didn’t have all the butter on her biscuit’, to use a southern saying. She was bonkers. I kept thinking, ‘No, I can’t write this. If I write this, everyone will think this is what I think.’ I didn’t listen to that voice, and every one loved the piece. On the other hand, a story I’m writing about life as an expat is still too close to my chest to serve justice to the story that needs to be told. When I submitted it for critique, everyone hated it. That’s not to say I’ll let the story die, but it is to say I’ll think about it more before I continue with it.

    One of my writing instructors used to say as long as enough time has passed, physical time and emotional time, we can create compelling stories using pieces of ourselves and our pasts. The trick is to know how much of us to leave out, and how much to put in. I’m still learning that =).

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    1. I firmly believe memories work in books after a decent interval has gone by. You’re absolutely right on the passage of time stuff. Let twenty years disappear, and everyone involved disperses, and everything in life changes. Some of the people who served as “inspiration” for my characters are even dead.

      So it is now far more “history” than present, and I think easier for a spouse to digest. Still mine just enjoys kidding me too. In France, I can’t return to the car after filling up without her needling me about the cashier: “Do you know her? Did she look familiar to you?”

      The putting of ourselves into a character is a creative experience that is hard to describe to someone who hasn’t tried it. Imagine also “fictionalizing” your parents? How would you do it? Or past romances? Or schoolmates? Or acquaintances? It’s a heckuva challenge, but one worth undertaking if you lean that way in your writing.

      My characters do say some things I flat out disagree with, including things “inspirations” had really said. Many conversations I recount actually more or less happened at some point in my life. At other times those are essentially just my thoughts coming from a fictionalized someone’s mouth. Mostly only I know the difference.

      My wife has let me have it a few times when she spotted that I’d taken observations she’s used and put them into a character’s mouth. But I had to. Sometimes stuff she says is just too good to pass up! 🙂


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