I picked up a copy of Elena Ferrante’s book, The Lost Daughter last week. I have no idea how close this novel is to Ferrante’s real life but that really doesn’t matter because what resonated with me was its honesty and candidness. That’s what we are looking for when we read a new book. Not just something new in terms of story and plot but something which speaks to us. As a writer – just as it is in everyday life- it’s hard to be open and honest. Unless you are a psychopath, you are likely, just as I am, to be consumed by anxiety, guilt, envy, and a host of other sins. None of us like to admit to these. And we judge, don’t we? We judge other people’s appearance and behaviour and we think we are better than others - or much worse. Often we swing between insecurity and over-confidence and most of us harbour secrets which we are afraid of revealing in case we are judged – or worse – abandoned by our loved ones. This is what it means to be human.
Ferrante’s short novel is, at its heart, a story about the complexities of motherhood. The mixed emotions we have about our children. The way we can love them but resent them. Ferrante explores the worst and best of our humanity. She does it without fanfare. She reveals our human frailties and strengths, our ability to love and our ability to hate.
We can learn from Ferrante in our writing - learn to take more risks with what we write about and how we write it. We know when we are not being genuine – either to ourselves or others. It’s the same with writing. If we are not being honest and open on the page, it shows. The writing becomes dull. It lacks sparkle. This is why it’s important to get into the heads of our characters. We need to know their deepest secrets, their strengths and weaknesses otherwise our characters are mere words. Cardboard cut-outs. Cliches. But in order to create characters that ‘sing’ on the page we need to go deep inside ourselves. We must be honest about our own motivations, weaknesses, strengths, and passions.
We are also afraid of being judged. Should I write about this or this? What if I offend someone? Do I know enough about this subject? All this gets in the way of our writing. But equally we shouldn’t just write for shock value because that’s not honest writing either.
I have a new book of fiction out later this month - 'flashes' of my childhood based on growing up in a village in North Worcestershire in the 1960's. Not everything that happened in the book is ‘true’ in the sense of absolute fact. The truth lies in the emotions, in my feelings looking back now as an adult. My brother remembers different things about our lives together. That doesn’t make his account untrue. My experiences are filtered through my memories and emotions, not his. What matters is being true to my experience on the page. This is not journalism where facts matter.
Bronwen Griffiths is the author of two novels and a book of short stories about the war in Syria. Her new book of flash fiction/memoir, Listen with Mother, will be published later this month by Silverhill Press, Hastings.