When I was just a wee lad, fully expecting to become a published author before my eighteenth birthday (I was only off by about a decade), I used to do all my writing in my mother’s kitchen. I’d set my Smith-Corona electric up on the counter, plug that bad boy in, and hammer away at one sci-fi short story after another, working as my mother toiled over a hot stove making breakfast, lunch or dinner for a family of five. I don’t know how either of us ever got anything accomplished, but we managed to co-exist in that little kitchen quite nicely, even if her cooking was always exceptional and my writing uniformly unpublishable.
Every now and then, however, Barbara Jean Haywood would break the unspoken peace accord we’d reached to evict me from the room, the meal of the moment requiring more uncluttered counter space than my typewriter and scattered manuscript pages would allow. On these occasions I’d grudgingly move to the dining room, where the light and ambiance were nowhere near as conducive to my flow, and issue a dire warning:
“One day,” I’d tell my mother, “I’m going to be a famous author. And when I’m asked if my parents encouraged me to write, I’m going to tell people how you used to throw me and my typewriter out of the kitchen every time I tried.”
We both used to get a big kick out of that.
I never made good on my threat, of course. In her own way, before she passed eighteen years ago, my mother was just as responsible for my becoming a published author as my father (more on him at a later date), and I will always be thankful I had such an incredible woman in my life. Still, for all her pride in my work, my mother never quite understood my fascination with genre, and in fact pestered me constantly to write non-fiction instead. Specifically, she wanted me to write about our family. Its highs, its lows, its ugly warts.
I had zero interest.
First, because I was always certain there was no “there” there. Contrary to what my mother thought, the trials and tribulations of the Haywood clan, even extended out to our Lugo/Bordenave cousins, would not have made for much more than a mildly amusing read. We had our moments of high drama and hilarity, sure, but for the most part — and I feel incredibly blessed to be able to say this — much of the heart-rending tragedy that most bestselling family sagas are made of — sudden death, serious illness, financial hardship — was absent from our lives. None of us were famous or wealthy, or particularly inclined toward a life of crime. In short, we were a multi-cultural Brady Bunch with an edge, and it was beyond me how any author could make an engrossing book out of that.
Second, writing was a release for me, a way to escape my somewhat sheltered and — if not exactly unhappy — occasionally uncomfortable existence, and it could only serve that purpose if I was writing fiction. Stories of my own invention whose outcome was entirely within my control.
My third and primary disincentive for writing about me and mine, however, was that I didn’t want to air our dirty laundry — no matter how innocuous it may have seemed by most standards — in public.
And that’s the whole point of a good autobiography, isn’t it? Telling all the stories about yourself and the people you care about that most reveal your greatest strengths and weaknesses? Your brightest and darkest hours? All the good stuff alone won’t do; you’ve got to offer up the dirt, too. The lies and betrayals; the extra-marital affairs and disastrous, bumbling, humiliating mistakes. The promises broken and dark secrets kept. And last but not least, the author’s true, inner-most feelings about it all, regardless of who might get hurt in the revealing.
No thanks, Mom, I thought. I’ll pass.
So that whole “keeping a journal” thing we writers are supposed to do? I never bothered with it. I always found the concept rather self-indulgent: “My thoughts and life experiences are so extraordinary, I must write them down for posterity.” I understood the value of keeping a journal as a technical exercise; any activity that requires one to write every day can’t be bad. But self-reflection? Who needed it? Growing up, my focus was rarely if ever on what was real; it was instead on what could be. The worlds and people I could create to do my own bidding. Why waste time writing about an actual, ordinary day when you could write about a fictional, exciting one instead?
(I must admit that I was clueless about the therapeutic potential of keeping a journal, which obviously cannot be denied. In the absence of a good therapist — and I’ve been lucky enough to know a few — writing a daily journal requires a level of introspection that can sometimes be as curative as it is revelatory.)
Needless to say, since those early days in my mother’s kitchen, I’ve learned to better appreciate stories taken from real people’s lives, and the incredible courage it often takes to write them. History was never my favorite subject in school — in what possible way could things that happened to others in years past be relevant to my present or future? — but as most adults eventually do, I’ve come to understand history’s import and, yes, its myriad connections to my own existence. I’ve even come around to reading — and thoroughly enjoying — a history tome or two.
And yet the business of writing about my private life, aside from those experiences that relate to my writing, remains a difficult chore for me, and I continue to wonder why anyone should care to read about it. The theory behind social networking as a marketing tool is that the more readers know about you as a person, the more curious they’re likely to be about what you write, but I remain unconvinced that this is true. I think what really breeds such curiosity is not the baring of an author’s soul, but a consistent production of smart/funny/thought-provoking material via every platform one decides to take advantage of. What you choose to write about is almost irrelevant.
Certainly, establishing one’s credentials as a decent, compassionate human being who’s suffered pain and loss like all the rest of us can’t hurt an author’s chances of building a substantial readership. Readers may not need to like the people they read but most prefer to think those people are real and not imaginary, and maybe even deserving of their patronage in some small way. But how much personal information is enough to create that connection and how much is too much? In order to win readers over in large numbers, is it really incumbent upon a writer to treat them like members of his most intimate family?
For instance, if I based my next Murderati post on my divorce from my first wife, delving into the depths of depression that experience put me through, while making only the slightest effort to draw a connection between it and my writing at the time, would that make you any more or less inclined to read me? Would knowing the details of how alcohol and crack cocaine have fucked with my family over the years somehow enhance your interest in my fiction?
As a reader, it’s never worked that way for me. I’ve always put the writing before the writer, caring very little to know the life stories of the people I read. Lawrence Block, Martin Cruz Smith, Elmore Leonard . . . Ask me one question about their private lives and I’d only be able to shrug. I don’t know what injustices they’ve suffered and I don’t give a damn. That’s their business. What they write and how well they write it is mine.
But I fear I’m a dying breed. In this age of Facebook and Twitter, in which sharing all you have to share with perfect strangers is rapidly becoming the whole point of the online exercise, it may no longer be enough for a reader to be simply that: a reader. Maybe now, potential fans expect more from the reader/author contract than just a good read. They expect — they demand — a ticket to his inner circle, as well.
For writers capable of opening their lives up to that kind of public scrutiny, at least on occasion — especially those who can do it as effortlessly and brilliantly as my fellow ‘Rati Stephen Jay Schwartz and David Corbett have in recent weeks here — lending such added value to their fiction will not be too much to ask, and they’ll reap the benefits of their candor. But for others like me, hopeless introverts who can’t so much as crack the window onto their personal lives without feeling naked, that task will be all but impossible.
Were she here, my mother would no doubt be disappointed to see I’m as reluctant as ever to tell my family’s stories.
But I suspect she’d read my next book anyway.
Questions for the class: For the readers among you, how much do you need to know about an author’s personal life before he or she strikes you as worthy of a read? And authors, where do you draw the line between what you’re comfortable sharing with your readers and what you aren’t?