Separating Writers and Their Work

An April Ending

There was nothing worth the pain of holding on anymore,
So on an April day he let it go,
And he found how easy surrender can be,
After ages of battle lost and won.
Easy as writing a letter home.
One step over the edge,
Letting gravity take over,
Trusting one thing:
The rope.

One of the problems writers occasionally encounter is the assumption that everything they write must have a deep, hidden connection with their own lives. We like to think that books and poetry give us insight into the author’s mind, and that by reading their works, we are in some small way gaining a better understanding of them. We feel frustration, respect, and affection for people we will never meet. Billy Collins has become a trusted mentor of mine, and I only exchanged a few sentences with him at a poetry reading while he signed a book. Art and literature are founded on emotion. A part of the creator seeps into the creation. The greatest artists are the ones who channel their own experiences and emotions into their work, and by engaging with it, we form a connection with the creator.

That being said, it is unwise to assume that every literary work is a partial autobiography. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. When I started reading Stephen King’s books, a thought kept cropping up in the back of my mind: What kind of person can come up with things like this? I had the same thought when I read The Bride Collector by Ted Dekker. Who thinks about stuff like this? I assumed that because both authors use graphic, macabre imagery, they must be a little twisted themselves. That is, until I found myself on the receiving end of the same belief.

My junior year of high school, I wrote a poem called “Before I Wave the World Goodbye”. It was a terrible, sappy thing about saying goodbye to the day before falling asleep, a poem with the same premise as Goodnight Moon and none of the charm. I turned it in for a writing project. Two days later, I was called into the counselor’s office because they thought the poem contained suicidal thoughts. It was a simple matter of misinterpretation, but it got me thinking. How many times have I assumed things about authors based on their works alone? Maybe Brian Jacques, author of the Redwall series, doesn’t actually like mice. Maybe Lilian Jackson Braun prefers dogs over cats. I’ve never taken the time to actually find out; I’ve just drawn these conclusions based on their books.

There are some things we can know for certain based on decades of exhaustive research. Edgar Allan Poe, as hinted by his short stories, was a social misfit. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle valued science and logic, like his immortal protagonist. However, it is unfair to presuppose things about authors without taking the time to research what they are actually like. It turns out the Stephen King is a normal human being with a passion for thrillers. Ted Dekker is likewise untainted by homicidal thoughts. They simply choose to write what they are good at.

It is fun to play a guessing game about our favorite authors. I often wonder whether Robert Frost spent his free time hiking around the woods and picking apples, or whether Taylor Mali really did see a piano being lowered from an eighth-floor window while trying to teach math in a classroom across the street. The trouble comes when our guesses start to color our opinion of the artist without ever taking time to find the truth.

In college, I learned that you can write about sad topics without feeling sad. At the top of this post is a flash-fiction piece I wrote during a sunny day in September, when everything was going swimmingly and I felt on top of the world. I was given the challenge by a professor to write a story using less than sixty words. The truth is, when you want to tell a story in a short amount of time, tragedies are much easier to write. You don’t have to rescue the protagonist and tie up all the loose ends. You can just leave your readers hanging, and they won’t demand an explanation, because sadness is a thing we are all familiar with. Tragedy is a topic everyone can connect with, and it comes in endless varieties, so authors never have to worry about running out of material.

You don’t have to be sad to write a tragedy, just like you don’t have to be a murderer to write about murder. The great thing about writing fiction is that it allows us to be things we’re not, to experiment with thoughts and situations that we might otherwise never encounter. Authors invest emotional and creative energy into their works, which is what gives them their life, but in the end, it’s fiction. We are adults playing pretend.

 

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