In an interview a few years back, award-winning author Melissa Pritchard talked about how she had finally gotten over her hesitation to write about herself and how to put her own experiences—though in exaggerated or embellished form—in her works, in order to achieve a literary effect. It sounds like a brave development, to expose your true self in that way, but also risky in the hands of a less expert author.
When I write a story with a female protagonist, I take care not to model her too much on me, because when I do, I tend to make her “too perfect”—always saying the right thing, living up to expectations (as I would like to do myself; if only). Characters need flaws just like those real people have. It takes experience for an author to come up with characters that are both deeply felt and independently real. Some not-very-good books seem to be less an exploration of character and more an exercise in wish fulfillment, with the author as hero.
Naturally, the sum of all an author’s experiences are present in the imagination like a smorgasbord to pick a little from here and a big serving of there, and the resulting story reflects those fractured bits of reality. But that’s very different from writing a story in which the central character is a (much smarter, slimmer, younger) stand-in for one’s self.
My series of four short stories about young Japanese American newspaper reporter Brianna Yamato are set in Sweetwater, Texas. The Sweetwater in these stories, to the extent it reflects the real town, is a simulacrum of what it was sixty years ago, when I would visit my aunt and uncle who lived there. Brianna is so different from me, in age and cultural background that I can safely write those stories in first person. My “I’s” won’t get crossed. And she’s feisty. She stands up to the Texas Old Boys Club in a way I never would have! Definitely not me.
Pritchard says that when she’s starting a new story, she tries first, second (tough), and third person voices to see which best speaks to her. She relies “on an internal ripple of intuition that manifests physically as a kind of charge in my solar plexus.” When it’s right, it feels right.
She describes how in a story of mothers and daughters—potentially fraught territory there—a conventional approach just wasn’t working. It wasn’t getting her “to the emotionally dangerous point I needed to get to.” This story, “Revelations of Child Love,” was eventually told as a series of sixteen confessions and she needed that right voice and form to “carry the charge and danger the story needed.”
Sometimes, she says, it takes a couple of drafts to find the danger point. When she’s not sure what danger point she’s aiming for, she asks herself what secret she’s keeping from herself. That’s where she’s trying (as a writer) to go and not succeeding. She advises her students to look for those secrets too.
Such probing can be hard and difficult work, and I wouldn’t say I’m especially successful at it. For me, it takes time. In this context, though, I’ve been thinking about a short story I recently finished that took an unexpected turn at the end. I thought it was a kind of horror-story adventure, but realized later it was about trust. How for one character, trust is established, and for the other, it’s destroyed.
Melissa Pritchard has taught at Arizona State University and currently lives in Columbus, Georgia. She’s won a great many awards as the author of four short story collections, including The Odditorium (love the title!) and five novels. Her new novel, Flight of the Wild Swan, will be published next March.