Friday, May 8, 2009

Are you what you write--or read?

You may be what you eat, but are you what you write—or read?

 Hi readers, writers, lurkers, friends, I’m Caroline Leavitt and I am so completely thrilled to be blogging this week for Kepler's. (Every writer and reader knows that an indie store is your best friend and Kepler's is wonderful.) I write novels, I write a book column for The Boston Globe and Dame, I review for People, I write screenplays, I blog  at, I'm on Facebook and Twitter, I'm a senior instructor at UCLA Writer’s Program online—and I read everything in sight, including the back of cereal boxes.

 Because I also write very personal essays, a lot of time people assume that my novels are also personal and autobiographical, and that if you read any one of them, you can truly know me. Hmm and alas. Not quite true.

 Sure I write about things that have broadsided me in life—a devastating illness in Coming Back to Me, open adoption in my latest Girls in Trouble, and about asthma and my phobia about driving in my forthcoming novel Breathe, (2010 from Algonquin.)  But for me, those autobiographical details are really just the background, much like the wash you do on a watercolor painting before you really begin the hard work. As soon as you put a real life event on paper, it changes.  It fictionalizes. The characters stretch their legs and begin breathing on their own. I’m not interested in writing about myself in fiction because for me, the pleasure is losing myself in another person, another world, another situation I’ve never been in and am dying to explore.

For me, writing a novel is really like living another life.  I try to tunnel into every character’s skin until I am as confused or angry or scared as they are (which isn’t always pleasant at the dinner table!) So in that sense, I suppose I am all my characters.  I’m the 16-year-old girl who is terrified and pregnant and wildly in love in Girls in Trouble. I’m the husband in Breathe whose wife has been killed in a car crash three hours from home and has no idea why she had a suitcase in the back seat.  Wasn’t it Flaubert who said, “Madame Bovary, C’est moi?”  And when you read, don’t you slip into the skin of the characters? Don’t you also feel that you are them? If the emotions feel true, if the situation seems alive and breathing, than we are all, if just for a few hours,  Jay Gatsby pining for Daisy—and Daisy weeping over all his beautiful, expensive shirts.

 Leora Skolkin-Smith,  the author of Edges, (now in film development) insists (and I agree with her,) that it’s important to remember that fiction is not reality. “I go inside my life as material to write my fiction,” she says, “I want to invent, not to present it as reality. It’s as Proust said, we can only know our experiences later, in memories or in fiction. ”

But Rochelle Jewell Shapiro, author of Miriam the Medium, thinks a little differently.   “I am what I write,” she says  “Miriam in my novel is me.  Every essay, every story I have written is me. It’s my burning issues that fire me up to write. My novel was about the conflicts I have being psychic: conflicts with family, clients, even myself.”

Recently, one of my son’s teachers asked to read one of my novels.  Thrilled, I gave her Girls in Trouble, hopeful that she might love it, but she returned it, shaking her head, apologizing that she only got to page 50 because it made her too emotional, because it didn’t mesh with her idea of whom she thought I was.  “You’re such a happy person in real life!” she explained.  “So how can you write such dark books?”

 Sigh and alas.

So, I'm very curious now.  Are you what you read or write?  Or just the opposite? 


  1. This is such a great post! Writers know that we mine our lives for material, but that we try to relate the emotional truths of what has happened, of what we've learned, not that we use incidents verbatim. And too often readers think they'll know all about us once they've read our books! They should all read this post!

  2. Thank you for this wonderful post, Caroline! I often think about writing the way that Jung talks about dreams, when he says that every image inside the dream, even the inanimate ones, represents some aspect of ourselves; I love how writing, like dreams, can take us to strange, surreal places that seem to have nothing to do with our lives until we take a closer look and see how we've subconsciously woven ourselves into the fabric. And I also love how writing allows us to step outside of our lives, to slip into other skins, to open our eyes and minds and hearts to others' experiences. I think about the Roman playwright Terence's quote, "I am human. Nothing human is alien to me"; writing can help us connect with the larger human experience, to realize that the "other" is not so "other" after all, that we are all connected...

    Looking forward to your other posts!

  3. Yes, I agree! I can't tell you what it feels like whe readers come up to me and say: "I'm so sorry your father committed suicide. My father did, too. I know how you feel." I wish I could say, "Yes, I'm sorry, it is hard, isn't it." and comfort them because they are sincere and full of deeply felt empathy but the truth is: it's an imaginary father who committed suicide ONLY in the fictional book I wrote. I totally invented him and the tragedy. I'm always touched flattered that it was so convincing but...t's also hard when people think all the disturbed traits you concoct for your characters are yours...oh, dear.