Over the course of trying to learn how to be an effective writer, I’ve read numerous books, articles, and blog posts on all things to do with writing.
I continue to read blogs on writing to this day. The majority of my study of nuts-and-bolts writing craft, however, occurred between the pages of this or the other book, and between 2001 and 2004, when I was first starting to take myself and my desire to produce publishable material seriously.
The years that followed afforded me numerous opportunities to really think about, internalize, and practice the various techniques I’d read about in the past.
They also caused me to often forget which books yielded which specific writing tips and ideas about the writing life.
One notion in particular for which I clearly remember the content yet not the source is the idea that whatever novel you’re currently working on is, in truth, the novel of your past.
This might not make intuitive sense to some. I know when I first read this statement, I disagreed with it. To me, the novel I was currently working on was the novel of my present, for I was presently writing it. Or it was the novel of my future, for it wasn’t until the future that it would actually be a novel rather than just the incomplete manuscript it was at that point in time.
But the writing book in question elaborated: it said that although a writer may be working on a particular novel in the present, that novel was thought up and fleshed out in the past. That past may have been six weeks ago, six months ago, or even longer.
But life doesn’t stop while we’re writing (as much as we might sometimes wish it did); the present constantly becomes the past. Things continue to happen to us. We continue to change and grow.
Thus, the person you were when you first started your novel isn’t the same person you are now.
Hence, the novel of your past.
Different (writing) strokes for different folks
Explained thus, I found it much easier to get on board with this idea, particularly since I started writing my current novel-in-progress six years ago. Age 27 seems a long time ago these days, from which I know I have definitely matured.
But there’s more to this idea than even that. Re-examining it some 8-11 years after having first read about it, armed with all the knowledge and experience I’ve since come to acquire, I now realize it’s not just the fact that we grow and change subsequent to when we first come up with an idea for a story.
Rather, in a temporal physics sort of way, it is the idea that, were it not for a writer’s past life and experiences – whatever they may entail – the novel s/he is writing today would never exist, for s/he would never have come up with it in the first place. S/he would instead have come up with something different as informed by the past and experiences s/he did have. Perhaps only slightly different or perhaps wildly so. But different.
Hence, the novel of your past. The story of your personal history. Necessarily.
History for the People
When it comes to history as a subject in school, and as a discipline of inquiry in higher learning and research, there’s no question of its benefits for society as a whole. History teaches us about how things were in the past, which in turn can help teach us how to ensure a better future.
However, the history we’re learning from – the history recorded in text books and primary sources documented at the time when specific historical events were taking place – isn’t necessary the truth of what really happened.
It’s a well-known fact that history is often written by the winners – those with either the means, the influence or both to ensure that events are recorded to portray them in a favourable light, and to make their ideas and agendas seem inevitable and without dissent.
It is rare within conventional history that we hear all sides of the story. Often, these alternate interpretations aren’t welcome within society, as seen in the often negative connotation applied to the otherwise legitimate scholarly process of historical revisionism.
But writing is the great historical equalizer. Not only are all writings stories of the past, all writing is autobiographical to some extent as well, no matter how allegorically the tale is presented.
When I go back and reread parts of my first (incomplete, shelved) novel that I started writing in 2002, it is the story of 23-year-old me, both as a writer and a person.
It is the story of my values, my beliefs, my hopes and fears, my perceptions of the world, my notions of justice, and my ideas on love.
It’s not the story that 33-year-old me would write: many of my perceptions have since changed, my hopes and fears have become bolder and darker (and not necessarily in that order), and, if nothing else, my idea of what makes a good story has grown up along with me.
Thus, in this manner are we all writing historical fiction, no matter what era our story occurs in. Writing is a chance for everyone to have their say within their own personal history – to preserve it, as in amber, to share it with others, and also to track it to ensure the writer him-/herself doesn’t forget it.
A story re-creates our past, and we, in turn, create the story. And in doing so, we once again find new meaning in the name of this post series, of which this post will be the last:
Building a history.