Identity and Truth

Seneca writes:

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.”

The Shortness of Life: Seneca on Busyness and The Art of Living Wide Rather Than Living Long by Maria Popova

I recently embarked on a memoir writing course and have been trawling through the various stages of my life, the events that took place and the hold they have over me. On paper my life looks rich in source material—plenty of births, deaths, significant changes, angst, loss etc—but what does it all add up to in terms of Seneca’s definition? Have all the failed relationships, mistakes, disruptions, lack of control, blind alleys, nervous breakdowns and self-sabotaging been a waste? I don’t think so. They have forged me into who I am and the writer in me uses these experiences to inform my work, create ‘real’ characters and situations, empathize with them and hopefully enable readers to understand their motivations and flaws.

David Foster Wallace puts it perfectly in: The Nature of the Fun and Why Writers Write:

“Fiction becomes a weird way to countenance yourself and to tell the truth instead of being a way to escape yourself or present yourself in a way you figure you will be maximally likable.”

So what is my Truth? And what does it have to do with identity?

When we create characters we need them to be identifiably different from the others and use various techniques to do this—‘voice’, what they say, what they do, what is said about them, what they wear, what they carry and so on. We create a back story for them, invent life events, family members, mannerisms, education, likes and dislikes, music preferences etc, anything that will fix them in our minds so that we can psychologically motivate them. Most of that stuff never appears in our stories but we need it to create a ‘truth’ for the character. By providing an identity and personality for them they become real to us. We know them intimately, they speak to us, take us in directions we didn’t think we’d go, fall in love with unsuitable people and start to have a life of their beyond the pages.

When I was creating the character of Grace in my first novel I was drawing on an event that had stuck in my mind when my children were small. A two-year-old boy was abducted on the island of Kos when in the care of his grandmother and I wondered how the child’s mother could ever forgive her own mother. This ‘what if’ became the starting point for the story and the character of Grace was created through my own experiences; she was about the same age as me, had a difficult relationship with her daughter and had mental health problems. The similarities ended there but were a springboard for other ideas until Grace lived with me and even slept with me at night. Drawing on deeply personal experiences I can vouch for the ‘truth’ of her, but she isn’t me; I am me.

Joseph Conrad: Writing and the Role of the Artist (1897) says:

 “Art is long and life is short, and success is very far off.”

Looking at my life experiences it may seem as if I have lived a life of wasted opportunities but in Seneca’s terms, writing is a way of me having a long life because I now know “how to use it”.

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