Name Dropping the Personal
I might seem to give away a lot in my writing, but in fact I am a shy and private person – even secretive. I was born under the sign of Scorpio, after all.
Paradoxically, I use my written confessions to control what people know about me.
People are surprised occasionally by just exactly what I tell. For example, a writer friend, once expressed surprise that I did a blog post about the offerings I make to Guan Di, a Chinese deity. “Aren’t you afraid,” she said, “that some people will judge you for it?”
I write about my friends, and I worry constantly about how much of them I should be exposing. Is it even ethical? Being a writer is about betraying everyone around you – your friends, your family. How do we live with ourselves? And I get anxious when other writer friends tell me they are recording our encounters. This year I travelled to Thailand with a writer friend from Cambodia and he was planning to turn the whole journey into a book. This made me increasingly uneasy until I finally asked him: "Please, could you use a pseudonym for me?" An outrageous request, I know, considering how many of my friends end up in my own writing.
Perhaps, also, in our personal writing we are confessing to the parts of ourself that we would like to be more significant. In my writing I am slightly more daring, more dangerous, than I would seem in real life. And the friends I discuss in my writing are always the most outrageous, the most extreme – drunks and criminals being express favourites of mine, a la Jean Genet. My poor dull and respectable acquaintances barely get a look in.
People want to know how they can make their personal writing more interesting, and I’d like to give the following two tips:
1) Name drop. Secretly we are all snobs- those that deny it are the worst snobs of all. If you have encounters, no matter how limited, with the great and famous, get it all down in writing. People will always be fascinated by this. The same goes for great, historic events. E.F. Benson, one of my favourite name-droppers, did it brilliantly in his memoir of the Victorian era, As We Were. He is constantly alluding to literary celebrities, aristocrats and politicians, even if he only saw them talking to friends at a party. But of course, this kind of gossip is absolutely delicious, and makes the book dazzle.
2) Write about festivals and holidays that most of your readers share. That way you get your own unique perspective on things across, but also give your reader a way in, something they can compare their own experiences with. My friend Sharon Snir, for example, in her Little Book of Everyday Miracles writes about the way she used to experience Christmas, particularly waiting for the arrival of Santa Claus. Readers can either recognise their own similar experiences and so feel comforted, or they can say, "Oh, my experience of Santa Claus was nothing like that," and so become more involved in Sharon's story that way.
Don't forget that in November I am speaking on a panel on this very subject at the Emerging Writers' Festival one-day Sydney roadshow at the NSW Writers' Centre. More info here.