Back during my first year of uni I excitedly took a class called ‘Writing Your Own Life’. At the time I was in the middle of writing a kind of narrative autobiography, something that I can’t quite explain the reasoning behind apart from to say it was a particularly self-indulgent time in my life. Basically, I had happened on the flimsy notion that my teenage years were so fundamentally interesting that I simply had to write them as a novel, a project that at the time I was convinced would be my best and most unique work.
The first glimmers of doubt about the project probably started to creep in during this class. Because while I was very interested in studying what went into writing memoir, the stories that my classmates wrote were uniformly tedious depictions of everyday minutiae with no real drama. And while it took me a little longer to realise that was more or less the case with my own attempt, that class did make me start to consider whether anyone finds our lives as interesting as we do ourselves.
While I did eventually end up shelving that project, I don’t regret the time I spent on it. Because what I now have is a fairly detailed account of my teenage years written in very close proximity to them, something I can look back on in the same way you might an old diary. Naturally it’s melodramatic and at times atrociously written, but it’s also more or less an accurate albeit highly subjective recounting of my experiences and from a nostalgic standpoint that’s a nice thing to have. I’m no longer under the illusion that it would have any value to anyone apart from myself, but I’m comfortable with that.
The other night, walking back from an old friend’s place after a night of beer and reminiscing, I thought, idly, about the prospect of continuing it. Wouldn’t it be cool, in theory, to have so much of your life documented for yourself in a style designed to be read and enjoyed rather than a dry listing of events?
I wasn’t, in the end, seriously considering it. I knew pretty quickly that it wouldn’t happen. Partly it’s a practical thing; to pick up from where I left off would mean covering a decade, and frankly even I don’t think enough of serious interest happened in those years to be worth the time and energy. I also tend to think writers are self-obsessed enough and an undertaking like this one encourages that ugly trait.
But ultimately, I think what made me drop the semi-formed idea was the dawning understanding of how redundant it would actually be. Because in many ways I have chronicled the last few years of my life. Not in the same way, chronologically and without embellishment, but I have written plays, short stories and even a six-part TV show draft that to varying degrees take real events and turn them into narratives.
It’s a spectrum of course. Something like Three Eulogies For Tyson Miller is an essentially accurate depiction of a real friendship albeit with the names changed and an altered outcome. We Are Adults, the aforementioned TV thing, is basically a remix of events from my early twenties in the guise of a kooky comedy (I know that every young male screenwriter under the sun has tried to write something like this, leave me alone). Plays like Regression or The Critic take particular emotions or experiences that are absolutely rooted in reality and explore them through the prism of made up characters or scenarios. Nothing I’ve done since that autobiographical project has been quite as pure in terms of truthfulness, but these other works have essentially continued the essence. Because to write is to be in conversation with your own life, to examine the things you’ve been through and find new perspectives on them through proxy characters, to try and make the personal and painful interesting to an external audience. It’s exactly why that ‘Writing Your Own Life’ class was so appealing to so many people. But the truth is, unless you’ve had a really unique one your life is rarely all that different from anyone else’s. We all have our demons, our regrets and our lessons learned and writers in particular tend to want to share and examine them. But the answer is seldom through direct autobiography. Because the truth, weirdly, can be constraining.
When Nelson and the Gallagher sold to HarperCollins, my publisher asked two questions. The first was whether the book was autobiographical. Yeah, I admitted. While it’s heavily embellished the basic setting and events of the narrative were lifted from a particular time in my life. The second question cut to the core of the book in a way that I had not yet managed. ‘Are the things the main character learns in this book the things you wished you had learned earlier?’
I was floored. Because I hadn’t thought about it and suddenly it made the whole book that much clearer. I had used real events but in building a fictional narrative around them I was given the freedom to allow my self-based protagonist to discover the things it took me years to. Which, in a weird way, makes Nelson and the Gallagher a truer work of self-expression that a verbatim retelling of the actual events could ever be. Because the significance of an experience is never really clear in the moment. In fiction, however, it can be.
Writing words about writing words.