Take what you can use and let the rest go by.
Quote starting my horoscope for the day. I have to admit it…I had no idea that Ken Kesey wrote “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” until I Googled him. I also had no idea that he was a guinea pig for government testing on psychoactive drugs or worked in a State Veteran’s Home. Obvious how his life affected his work.
Hemingway’s bitter estrangement from his parents is examined in the character Kreb in “Soldier’s Home“. Through his writing, he tried to understand the how they undermined his freedom. Which makes me wonder if his flat characterization, in general, is how he viewed himself. Charles Dickens’ used his childhood and upbringing. Escape from sweat labor and his frustration with a dysfunctional society is examined in Jack London‘s work. “The Fall of the House of Usher” is indicative of Edgar Allen Poe‘s drinking problem.
Even my beloved F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in “The Last Tycoon”,
“It was my first inkling that he was a writer. And while I like writers – because if you ask a writer anything, you usually get an answer – still it belittled him in my eyes. Writers aren’t people exactly. Or, if they’re any good, they’re a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person. It’s like actors, who try so pathetically not to look in mirrors. Who lean backward trying – only to see their faces in the reflecting chandeliers.”
A bit of self-reflection, perhaps?
Graduate students write thesis on the congruent aspects of life and literature. I examined this relationship in High School British Literature. Virginia Woolfe was my fascination and I poured over her diaries and novels, searching for connections. For my effort, I earned a “B” and meant far more to me than any “A” because I discovered the power of experience.
I know experience.
I know fear and shock in the face of tragedy. I experienced it at the 1989 Ramstein Air Force Base tragedy of “Flugtag”, when I was eleven. I saw the ball of flames crash into a field of onlookers. I saw the burned bodies, dead and alive, and heard the screams. I know frustration as one watches someone you love drown themselves in alcohol while struggling to keep your world together at the seams. Cancer ate my father from the inside out until I held his hand as he fought for his last breaths. I know what it is to grieve. I also know love from the first minute I held my son. Isolation as I fight for his education. Self-blame when I wonder if it’s my fault.
Oh, the myriad of feelings I know. While I may never write of my experiences as they happened, I can use them as reflections in the work that I write. My mother was no alcoholic. Quite the opposite. My father never went to jail, but he did serve two terms in Korea. None of my boyfriends were religiously obsessed, but I’ve spent hours in discussion with such people. And my best friend in High School? Not Jurnee, but a combination of women I’ve met over my years. Instead, my characters are reflections of people I’ve known and experiences I’ve had. And many nights, I’ve found myself, as Mr. Fitzgerald put it, “lean backward trying” only to see my reflection in the chandelier. Perhaps, it would be easier to just look in the mirror.
Why does this matter? Books are friends. In fact, there are times when books are my best friends because, as C.S. Lewis said,
“Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: “What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”
Sometimes, the only place we can find that, “You too?” moment is deep in the pages of a book. The pages on where an author shared her experience by looking in themselves, instead of avoiding it only to see their reflection in the chandelier.