Writing memoir does not appeal to me. Regardless, I decided to give it a try. And, I absolutely hated it. The writing process felt like torture. I’m not ready to write about certain things in my past. I’m meant to be a fiction writer and maybe essayist but not a writer of memoir.
I cringe when people ask me if my fictional stories are about me and situations I experienced, as if to imply that my writings are pure autobiographies in disguise of fiction. When I hear that, I want to hit my head against the wall. It is a naive question that reeks of an inexperienced reader. It feels like an insult to my creativity. That comment from a well-meaning person is dismissive of the effort it took to craft unique characters and plots that tell a story about our world. It’s even worse, when someone assumes that just because my protagonist is Indian, it is definitely me. Instead of being that flamboyant who grabs that person by the shoulders and screams at her face, I calmly yet boldly say, “Nope….” and then explain in least possible amount of words. Smiles are exchanged as I change the topic. But deep inside I’m still thinking “WTF? I hope I don’t have to deal with that question again.” In a few seconds, I’m over it. Life’s too short to bear grudges over silly things.
To me, writing autobiography disguised as fiction is not only cutting corners but also defeats the purpose of writing fiction. What is, after all, the very definition of fiction? Fiction can also be told in first person point of view. That’s the narrator not the author’s point of view. I just finished reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words. In her final chapter, she talks about writing her first autobiographical about language, travel, and self-discovery. I could completely relate to her in more ways than one. She mentioned exactly what I mentioned. She expresses her reaction as irritated. Lahiri explains that real life experiences are seeds that provide inspiration. However, it takes creative prowess to flesh out the character and add details make the scene alive.
Writing requires some distance from the writer to the topic. Otherwise, it’s difficult to look at the topic objectively and put all the various writing techniques I learned to use in a way that the message is told to the reader. That results in murky writing where the author’s voice is hidden. That is why I’m not a memoir writer. That is why I cannot write about myself disguised as fiction.
My novel in progress is about dysfunctional immigrant families, alcoholism, sex addiction, and a young woman seeking freedom from chaos and dysfunction. I happen to be an Indian woman who’s had some hookups in the past. I have family members and known people who are addicts. I’ve studied addiction in my undergraduate psychology classes. I understand how addiction changes relational dynamics. With that in mind, in the story I add clashing cultural attitudes about coping with living abroad, generational differences, and a young person growing up. These tenets are the seeds. However, that dysfunctional family in my novel is not my personal story. A lot of the situations are made up to reflect the character. I create people and then imagine how they’d likely react in a given situation. I also decided to change a few things. It seems almost every contemporary Indian-American woman writer is writing about families and unearthing family secrets. This has a message that has deeper truths. Yet, I want to show a liberal Indian family because I’m tired of the stereotype of Indian women being victims of tradition. It’s not the 1900s. Liberal Indians exist, especially among expat community. There are Indians who are not Hindus. I’ve known Indians who are Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Atheists, Jews, Agnostic. When it comes to protagonist characterization, most of the heroines start out as the gentle, quiet, innocent types and change in the end by becoming confident and perhaps bolder. I want my heroine to be loud, obnoxious at times, and a feisty rebel girl with a good heart, but her “bad girl” front is a mask. And, the mask is uncovered towards the end of the story. My protagonist can be just as opinionated as me, but we’re not the same. She doesn’t have to be likeable. If we both meet, we wouldn’t get along. We’d end up getting into a fight. As you can see, this is my creative process of fiction writing. I hope to write what is Third Culture Kid Literature not necessarily Indian, American, Indian-American for an international audience. Is it possible? Can a girl dream?
Then, there’s a short story I’m writing set in a hostel in Bangkok. I had the experience of being older (30 years) and staying in a hostel with 20-somethings. There was a group of frat boy types from Northern England. Generally speaking, if you are in your late 20s or early 30s, you’d be the oldest person in a hostel. But here I wasn’t the only one. There were a few people my age and one older Japanese man in his 40s. I met some interesting people. Only 2 of them inspired characters. One is stoic and cultured. Then, you got the partiers and typical Abercrombie wearing college kids. Then, I made up a character and added a young guy who is from a wealthy New York family in but wants to escape. He’s naive but ends up being the wisest of all. He’s introverted and a deeper thinker. Then, I decided to have a male protagonist who is half-Indian and half-French. He meets an Indian-American woman. It’s about their relationship in a world where there is mistaken cultural identities, when cultures meet, and third culture kid identity. So, in this short story only about 10% of the story is inspired from real life. That’s mostly the setting and some character coifs. Other than that, it is fictional.
Suppose if I wrote a steamy sex scene, I’d prefer that you think I’m a pervert with vivid imagination than assuming that I am rehashing a past sexual experience. But yes, I may get an idea, but most of it is made up and has nothing do with the real experience. Maybe an ex-boyfriend of mine uses a witty line or has mesmerizing eyes. That scene will use that line or describe the eyes, but everything else is made-up by me.
So, dear ex if you happen to be reading this, you may relax. You’re not going to become a character and our past will not become a scene in any of my stories. Whatever happened (or continues to happen) in my real personal life stays there and will not emerge in a novel. It will only as a memoir, but I refuse to write memoirs about my sex life. That’s my private life. Past is the past. With that said, I’m now to be happily married to the love of my life. We both know each other’s pasts and lives. We readily forgave, accepted, and then moved on and begin a new life together.
In order to write a memoir, it is not necessary to have a miserable, fucked up life. There are travel and food memoirs. Th truth is that no one cares about reading someone’s miserable childhood unless it’s well-written. Everyone is busy and have short attention spans.
Thanks to John Piraro at bizarro.com, we can all laugh at the idea of making art out of a miserable childhood. One reason memoir writing doesn’t appeal to me is that I feel the public-at-large loves to be amused over someone’s misery. For instance, I cringe at the popular idea that depression or any mental illness is supposed to boost creativity. Depression does not give anyone creative advantage. This idea has been disproven. Yet, many people continue to buy into it because it seems to be putting someone’s struggle at the pedestal. Irresponsible romanticization of depression is making someone’s struggle a form of entertainment for the public at large.
Then, I hear from exasperated professors of writing about students who enroll in MFA programs for the purpose of therapy and self-expression alone, and unable to take feedback or any kind of criticism. I get it. I have encountered writers who get extremely defensive and take criticism personally. That’s a sign that they are not ready to make their writing public. MFA is a professional degree. I can sympathize. I took a personal essay class when I wasn’t ready to write personal essays. I wrote about topics that had potential, but I hadn’t yet emotionally processed some life situations and struggles. It ended up being the worst writing class I’ve taken. The professor and I didn’t click. I should have explored non-fiction writing on my own before I enrolled in an intensive course.
Writing for therapeutic reasons alone would be journaling or writing a diary. Writing has a bigger purpose than self-therapy and self-validation. I’ve been reading Dinty W. Moore’s Crafting the Personal Essay, which I highly recommend. It’s answered several of my doubts and questions about personal essays. It’s a completely different animal than fiction writing. Writing memoirs require a level of vulnerability and closeness that I’d rather not take. Like fiction, personal essays can also serve as cultural commentaries. It’s easier to cope with life’s paradoxes and seeming contradictions by poking fun while contemplating life. I can still keep that distance from myself and the topics.
Here are some pictures from my Thailand trip during 2014 Chinese New Years.