May 10, 2010

Writers Are the Translators of Their Childhoods

I recently watched Charlie Rose’s interview with New Yorker editor David Remnick about his new book The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama. One of David’s points in the book (which I have not read) is that one of the reasons why President Obama is so good at what he does is that he is somewhat of a shapeshifter, able to balance the needs of his audiences and strike just the right note, and also he is able to translate his background into the national narrative.

That last point really struck me: That one reason President Obama is so effective is that he is able to translate his childhood, both during his speeches and also in his memoir Dreams of My Father. It reminded me that the best writers do just that too ~ they translate their childhoods for a larger audience.

I used to be ashamed to think about writing stories based on my childhood. First, my childhood was not exotic, I thought. I was a hick, and where I was raised was not extraordinary in the least. I have since come to realize that I may be a hick, but there is come cache to being one, and when I travel if I say I’m from Wyoming the other person will invariably have a story of going to Yellowstone Park or traveling across the state. And they will remember me because I am from Wyoming, and if it’s a conference I often will be the only person there from Wyoming. I also have since realized that the way I grew up is in fact very exotic and very much out of the norm.

Second, I was ashamed because everyone’s first novel is thinly disguised autobiography. I was going to be different. I was not going to do what everyone else did. (I also wasn’t going to do that second-person story that everyone writes, for the same reasons, but then I did and it’s a darn good story, if I say so myself.) But I have come to realize that it doesn’t matter how close your stories are to your life. All stories are autobiography, even if the facts and characters do not seem to come from the writer’s life. They are emotionally truthful. What matters is that the writer is honest and gets as close to those things in the past that torture them. Those are the best stories. If that means they closely match your life, so be it.

Some of the best art comes from people moving away but then writing about that place they left. You’ve heard of many writers who no longer live where they grew up but they set all their stories there. They can do it in a way, with a perspective, that someone who still lives there cannot. (The same can also be said for people who move to a place and then write about it; they are in a unique position to have perspective and to translate for the people back where they come from.)

And I love the point about President Obama translating his life into the national narrative. Books, like people, can transcend their humble roots and shoot to national prominence. You can’t set out to write a classic ~ you can only write specifically about a certain place and certain characters. But your story is the story of other people too, and what happens to you can be the story of a generation, and so by telling your story you are telling the national narrative.

What I’m Reading Today: Nathan Englander’s “Free Fruit for Young Widows,” in this week’s New Yorker. A story about very specific things that is deeply philosophical. A fabulous example of opening and closing with murder yet the story is not sensationalistic in the least and is about so much more. It’s hard to put all this into words. And to find enough superlatives.

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