Ping-pong dialogue
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Jerusha Cowless, agony aunt: "Does it matter that I don't feel exposed?"

Q: I'm being kept up at night by one rejection; four full MS are still out there. The agent in question is super starry and it sounds like she gave my MS a thorough reading. She said some nice things, even said I nailed some things. But she said she didn't get a new perspective, neither was she challenged. I've also come across a lot of stuff about risk in writing. I am now wondering more generally where I actually take personal risks, and finding that I'm not doing it much. I guess the book that is looking for a home took a long time in the writing and is probably the 8th iteration of the original idea, so what might have been a new perspective is old hat. But more seriously the things that have affected me in life seem so far in the distance that to bring them up as material feels like a weird contrivance. My second novel is halfway done at least in draft format and although it has plenty (I think) in terms of new perspective I don't feel exposed in the writing of it - not really. Yeah, I'm trying stuff with voice but everyone is doing that to some extent. I know writers who only ever write about their lives and relationships. I don't think that's me so much. Am I alone?

A: I think it's easy to be vague and touchy-feely (or macho and suffering-artiste-ish) about how it's necessary to dare all and bare all if you want to write well,  but I'm not sure it's the whole truth. It certainly isn't a guarantee of good writing that the original source experiences were difficult or powerful. But, conversely, it's not a guarantee of bad writing that they weren't, or that you didn't have them. And heaven help any of you writers if you felt tied in to writing about your own lives and relationships - how boring would that be?

Having said that, I do think that for most of us, the best writing comes from places and materials which are really potent for us. That potency may be transmuted into other characters and situations, other worlds, other times, but it still connects with something quite fundamental inside ourselves. If you're not trying to find some kind of direct emotional (in the broad sense) connection with the story you're telling, then you're not going to find and write what's particular and individual and therefore real-seeming about this story. As John Gardner puts it, it's by the convincingness of the particularity of the story, that you persuade the reader to buy into the whole thing even though it's fiction.  And the more individual and particular to you it is, the more likely it is to challenge and surprise a reader, and offer them a new perspective. That direct connection needn't be dressed in the settings and relationships of your own life, but even if it's not there at the start of your thinking about "what if...", you do need to find it as you work.

So it's easy to assume - non-writers do assume - that the best writing comes from the newest, closest, most vivid (and so probably painful) stuff. But you also need distance. When Emma has set out to write a story which will enable her to explore something pressing and important to her, it doesn't work. Sometimes it really is too raw: she's dodging being really honest about something difficult. Sometimes it's that the project gets lumbered with her need to write about that stuff, and the needs of the stuff trump the needs of the project. Sometimes it's that this stuff is so potent for her that she just doesn't realise she hasn't done enough for the reader: readers who don't find this particular situation inherently potent may need more help to find these characters-in-action convincing. But one way or another, her relationship to the stuff messes with her writerly compass.

For Emma, the necessary distance only comes with time, and/or when the project is something else. Then, the material from experience has no more and no less status than any other material, as she was thinking about in Yours to Remember, Mine to Forget. Then, the potency of the experience supplies your writing-engine with high-octane fuel, if you're willing to let it. But it is just fuel; it's the project that decides its own direction and organisation, and what fuel it needs and what it doesn't. As Nora Ephron said, she did finally make a happy marriage, but she only found a way to write about happy marriages by writing about cooking, in Julie & Julia.

So I don't think that bringing up the distant past in order to use it as fuel for the present project is necessarily a contrivance; I think it's probably the best way to use it. Only people who don't understand the distance thing (read: non-writers) and assume that there's a direct correlation between how recent the experience is, and the how immediate the story feels, will think it's contrived or inauthentic. The rest of us (read: writers) know that the sliver of ice in the heart is necessary: it's what provides the distance - the duality we need - in order to re-experience and re-create experience in the service of the story.

If what the agent says resonates with you, and you want to do something about it, I wonder if somewhere in the iterations that deep, and live connection with your concerns has ... not exactly gone, but weakened. Perhaps you've so taken its presence for granted, that you haven't spotted that it's been nibbled away (at least for some readers) as you've worked at other things? Perhaps as things changed in the novel and you were concerned with the mechanics of cutting it apart and solving problems and stitching everything back up again, you didn't go looking to connect with that original fuel-source afresh.

Much-revised novels are like the proverbial knife which has had four new handles and three new blades. It is in some sense the same knife, but the question is, do both handle and blade still work together to cut the same things with the same precision? And if not, do they cut different but just as good things with the same precision? It's the last bit which can get lost.

As to whether you don't feel exposed in the new novel - and whether that matters... It could be that you're suffering from Submission Blight: that awful self-consciousness that comes over so many writers when their work is somewhere out there, being judged, from the first competition entry to the reviews of your twentieth novel. Submission Blight is an auto-immune disease which allows your Inner Critic to get the upper hand.

It could be that the new, different project doesn't make it as clear as the first one did, where you might find the most powerful, new material for it - inside yourself, or out there in the world.  That needn't mean it's the wrong project, just that you haven't yet seen which large and small aspects of the story offer that scope.

Or, yes, it could be that the piece is full of things which could work better - be better written, more powerful, more challenging for the reader, more radical in perspective - but you've decided, consciously or unconsciously, not to do them that way.  There are a hundred thousand choices of that sort in any novel, and you do have to choose. There are always perfectly sensible reasons for choosing not to go down a road which you may not even be acknowledging to yourself is difficult for emotional, political or practical reasons. You might be right that something's too raw still and must wait for another couple of novels. You might be right that drawing on something from a long time ago might seem contrived. You might be right that a ton of research would be needed and you're not sure you could handle the material anyway. You might be right that this topic is one which can't be a sideshow in a novel, but only the main subject, and that's a different novel.

Or you might not be right. How do you tell? I'm not sure you can, although shying furiously and desperately away from an idea is a sure sign of its potency for you - and therefore potentially for the novel. Whether it would be right to put that potency to the service of this novel is a different decision, and has to be controlled by your overall sense of what this novel is. It might be too rich: like putting rocket fuel into a Morris Minor and watching it explode into shards. But certainly on a smaller scale, I do think a willingness to be as open and naked to the writerly demands of the situations in your story is very important. And that can be difficult to do, especially if in other areas of life things aren't being so easy at the moment. But readers know, instinctively if not consciously, when you're pulling your punches in a piece of writing. Even when the only person you're not hurting is yourself.


Emma Adds: Re-reading Jerusha's reply, and seeing the comments, has made me think of a couple of points. First, that when Jerusha's talking about "emotional connections" she doesn't just mean heartbreak, or love. She also means things like fear, triumph, excitement, frustration. You can no more write a good thriller if you're not willing to find those places in yourself and let them fuel your story, than you can write good mumlit if you're not willing to find the places where the stuff of family life lives.

Second, Jerusha is careful about confidentiality, so it's I who can produce an example of how you don't need to have experienced a trauma directly, to evoke it effectively. The first time I wrote about a divorce I was happily married. Years later, after I was divorced, I came across that MS again, and realised I'd got it right. I'd imagined how it feels by spinning together the usual threads from which we all make our stories: what I knew about marriage, and breaking up with boyfriends, and friends' experience, and things I'd read in fiction and non-fiction. Out of that - it turned out - I had spun together a convincing rope of story, even though no strand in it came from precisely that situation. And that was the day I realised that, despite having had a very ordinary and boringly un-dreadful life, I really could be a writer.