All the Way is Far Enough - Debbie Bennett

To borrow from the late 1970s – Out of reach is out of touch / All the way is far enough. (Ten points for the artist, song title and year please – and no cheating online!) But is it far enough? Or is it too far?

They say that the best writing comes from the heart. Writing from personal experience, baring your soul, laying your innermost private thought and feelings open wide for the world to see. It’ll make for deeper, more passionate writing, yes, but is it really – well – decent?

To fictionalise a real-life experience can be cathartic. Many, many people write not for publication, not even for pleasure, but as a means of exorcising their own personal demons – the literary equivalent of self-harming, I imagine – letting out a bit of blood in a controlled manner. Or is that just pure self-indulgence? And if it is, does it matter anyway if all you are doing is making yourself feel better in the process? Sometimes, it does help and if you don’t have or want access to counselling facilities, it can be a great way of getting everything out and making sense of life.

But by writing about your own life, are you maybe trivialising the experiences of others? The recent spate of misery-memoirs – fact or fiction? Or a mixture of both? Certainly some of the more famous ones were later debunked as sensationalism by the authors’ families. That seems wrong to me. Even fictionalising to complete anonymity (and possibly thereby distorting the truth further) may only serve to hurt the people you love.

Let’s take an example. I once went to counselling sessions for a few months. The how and the why of it is not for a public forum. It’s something I might or might not use one day in fiction, but I’d be more likely to take the experience forward rather than the reason. In actual fact, having never before understood the “point” of counselling, I found the whole thing rather incredible – talking rubbish to a complete stranger for an hour is an odd experience. It makes you stronger, teaches you that you, and only you, can be responsible for yourself and your own reactions and feelings.

So how far is too far? I told you something about myself, but we all have secrets. What if I told you why, who or what? That wouldn’t be right, especially if it involved other people – it might even be considered libellous. What if I made it all up? How would you know the difference anyway? There’s a thin line between fact and fiction and it seems to me that a great many people find it hard to tell the difference anyway.

When I have a problem in the day job – a purely technical IT problem – I have access to an international online bulletin board. Frequently I can write something up before I go home and some kind American or Australian will have an answer or suggestion for me by the time I get to work the following day. But more often than not, the writing out of the problem will generate the answer; by the time I have succinctly described what I am trying to do and what hasn’t worked, my brain will have processed it all again in the correct order and the answer will be a logical conclusion. I think often that’s what happens in real life too. Writing it all out, whether for publication, a personal diary, a magazine “problem page” or just for yourself, and the answer sometimes tags along at the end. In fiction, it’s not always the answer you want. But that’s life.


Lee said…
This is similar to what happens to me when I write fiction - the main reason, probably, that I have great difficulties with advance plotting (well, OK, with plotting altogether, but that's a different problem). I can't figure out where I'm going and with whom and why till I actually go there. It means much cutting and rewriting afterwards, of course.
Kathleen Jones said…
Interesting post Debbie. I rarely write autobiographically, except in poetry. My big problem at the moment is that, in my new novel, I've based the main character on a real person who died a few years ago. She was one of the most amazing people I've ever met and had a very controversial life. I know that a few readers will recognise her and I worry that those who were close to her, some of whom are also my friends, will be hurt by what I'm writing and regard it as a betrayal. Yet, I feel the novel addresses some important issues and it's such a good story I can't let it go ...... Dilemma!
Debbie Bennett said…
Lee - I'm the same. I have no idea what's going to happen until it does and then I have to sit and wait for the characters to figure out what to do next...
Lee said…
Debbie, your stuff is fine, not all over the place like mine, so maybe you've learned to be a better editor. Or...? Any secrets...?

Kathleen, can't you just change enough details to disguise the character? Or is that too simplistic a solution?
CallyPhillips said…
Roxy Music Slave to love? You've had me with that half in the back of my head all day. Maybe 1976 or 77? Or I may be barking up the wrong tree entirely. Liked the post though. I just read some interesting stuff online about 'expressive' writing recently (some prof in texas) - and was involved in a number of big projects a few years ago where people were encouraged to write about their experience of mental health issues and/or other trauma -some great things came out of it. (radio and drama as well as poetry and prose) My 2007 novella Another World is Possible looks not just at the notion of 'truths' in storytelling and the creation of identity, but also at narrative psychology as a means of 'delivery' of story (fact and fiction) There's fact and fiction and created 'truth' all over it. Only I know 'THE truth' but the reader can make up their own minds too. And it all depends on how you read it.
It takes a lot of bravery for people to write some REAL stories as either fiction or memoir. The use of pseudonyms can be useful in that respect.Though some people are even braver than that and will stand up and be counted. One work I'd wholeheartedly recommend which I've read recently (and will be reviewing soon) is Ingrid Ricks 'Hippie Boy - a girls story' And she's doing great work with 'expressive' writing if you want to label it such with young teens - an anthology called 'We are absolutely not okay' is a great read. And then of course there's Kirsty Eccles The Price of Fame. Again, looking at using fiction as means of delivering fact.
I'm off to put myself out of my misery by NOW googling that song.
Debbie Bennett said…
Close, Cally - right group, wrong track.... :-)
Debbie Bennett said…
@Lee. I write myself into corners all the time. In my about-to-be-published thriller, I think I rewrote a chapter (near the end) about five times from scratch because I just couldn't get it to work. It was there, it just wasn't *right*, wasn't a natural cause-and-effect from what had come before.
Dan Holloway said…
I agree that writing things through can often be all that's needed to sort thigs out in your head. Often when we start with the intention of writing out an impassioned response *to* someone, by the time we have finished our thoughts are clearer and the need for the response has dissipated.
There was a wonderful interview with the poet Sharon Olds in the Guardian yesterday about this - I think she's right - it's the writer's say what is and isn't enough and no one else's. They have to live with the consequences of that, but that's far better than having to live with the consequences of not having the decision to make
CallyPhillips said…
Ah, all Roxy Music sounds the same to me. The only other one I know is Dance Away so it might be that. Or another one. I'm happy enough that I got the group right and the tune is somewhere half hidden in my brain. I forgot to check it anyway, so I can't be that bothered!
Debbie Bennett said…
You got it, Cally! ;-)

@Dan - I'm always very careful now when I dash off a passionate reply to anybody about anything, to let it cool for 24 hours before I hit the send button! Saved myself lots of embarrassment that way.
Pauline Fisk said…
I remember reading a Graham Greene quote about the little bit of ice at the heart of every writer, and I know what he meant. There's always that part of yourself standing separate from your life knowing that, one way or another, it could well find its way into a book. The skill lies in the subtletly with which one applies the 'one way or other'.

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