In writing classes and critique groups I’ve attended, questions that come up more often than you might think are “What is memoir? What is autobiography? What is creative nonfiction? How much can I as a writer bend the truth before I break it?” The answers are far more complex than first might be supposed. Well before Oprah confronted James Frey about his supposedly factual memoir A Million Little Pieces, writers I know have debated these questions. Even in a memoir where all the facts can be corroborated by outside sources, the slippery tricks of memory and the addition of dramatic tension can completely obliterate any objectivity. We don’t remember facts so much as we remember emotions, particularly when it comes to our personal past. An established fact can be portrayed in so many different ways, dependent on variations in tone, word choice, and whose perspective frames it. Just ask any student of history after he or she has taken a course in historiography.
In a sense, all writing is autobiographical. We can’t ever fully escape our own perspective–even us writers of fantasy and science fiction. When I started writing about the House of Landers in my mid-teens, it seemed like a welcome escape from my reality, the reason I suspect many teenagers read fantasy/sci fi and/or write it and/or play role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. Adult reality doesn’t just overwhelm some kids–it terrifies them. It terrified me, and I didn’t even realize it had terrified me until I reached age twenty-five or thereabouts and started reflecting more on my life.
At some point, soon after college I think, one of my friends ( someone who devoured every early word I wrote about the Landers), said, “You know, Karen, I could tell you were working out your family stuff in that particular scene.”
I gaped at her. “But this is pure fantasy–it’s not about my family,” I said, and the conversation drifted to another topic.
For years, I’ve turned that offhand comment over and over in my mind, and in that process, I’ve come to some realizations about my writing and writing in general. Even though all the events in the Landers saga are fictional (for instance, I’ve never been in a sword fight or painted a picture or given birth or even sensed an aura, for that matter ), everything I write about holds some emotional resonance for me, or I wouldn’t write about it. The facts don’t matter so much in fantasy, but the emotional reality does.
I’ve studied psychology on and off for a long time, culminating in the dream group experience I had last fall. The ladies in dream group taught me about internal family systems theory and Jungian archetypes, to the point that I was inspired to finally read Clarissa Pinkola Estes’s Women Who Run with the Wolves. I picked up this book when I was in my early twenties, but it’s one of those books you have to pick up at the right time or it doesn’t affect you in quite the same way. In my early twenties, I wasn’t ready to read it. Now I am. I imagine it’s one of those books to grow old with, as I’ll likely get different insights from it when I’m sixty than I do now. Interestingly enough, several people in my circle are either reading this book or have mentioned Jungian archetypes to me in the last few months. Serendipity can be cool.
Although internal family systems theory doesn’t rely on Jungian archetypes to explain the different parts of the personality, I’ve paired the two theories in my mind because I started seriously thinking about both around the same time. In internal family systems theory (developed by Richard Schwartz), the personality is comprised of manager parts, exile parts, firefighter parts, and then the self, the spiritual whole that can offer some connectivity among the various parts. If you want a better explanation than that without an overwhelming amount of detail, I recommend Wikipedia.
However, since Jungian archetypes are so personally powerful for me, I prefer to think of my personality parts and other peoples’ personality parts in terms of archetypes, not exiles, firefighters, or managers. And if you want to learn more about archetypes (and read some wonderful fairy tales in the bargain), I highly recommend Women Who Run with the Wolves.
Perhaps this has something to do with my love of fantasy. Fantasy novels are extended fairy tales, and fairy tales are a series of archetypes interacting with each other, archetypes that draw on subconscious drives and desires and the innate longing to understand self and others. In my writing, I feel I explore Jungian archetypes that represent mostly subconscious parts of self and how these parts support and conflict with one another, a major tenet of internal family systems theory. In a sense, my novels are my archetypal memoirs.Read More