Lily Iona MacKenzie's Blog for Writers & Readers


Do writers excavate themselves as they work?

I’ve been reviewing the notes I’ve kept for all my four published novels, going back to the first one Fling! I was amazed to discover I had started working on it in 1999. When I first began, I had hoped to write a lyrical novel a la Virginia Woolf. But my husband called my attention to a review of another Canadian writer’s book, Barbara Gowdy’s Mister Sandman. When I read of her comic sense, “both inventive and tough,” I realized again how much I wanted to write in this way. But I also had resisted it because the style seemed limited to certain topics. I felt it was difficult to write beautifully and be funny, and I was letting my desire for a certain kind of elegance to inhibit the progression of what later became Fling!

I was particularly taken by how Gowdy steered her story between fantasy and probability, between caricature and portrayal, between broad, cruel social comedy and a sympathetic understanding of thwarted and unhappy people. It gave me hope that I could do something similar but in my own unique way.

In a short story I had written then, I got close to this type of vision. It was great fun to do, but it scared me because it got out of control. By that I mean it slipped out of the ordinary way of seeing, meaning realistic, representational prose, into something else. At the time I wondered if perhaps it was my own perverse, bizarre self I feared. But my husband, who loves that kind of humor, embraces this tendency in me and encouraged me to follow its lead. Even so, at that moment, I was torn between my wackier self and my more conventional style. I love things that are a bit over the edge.

That’s one reason why writers like Roberto Bolano appeal to me. He writes realistically, but his work always has echoes of something else running through it. Something elusive that, as a reader, I can’t quite grasp. His narratives aren’t exactly dream-like, but they also aren’t mired in quotidian details. And he has a wonderful wit.

So it’s interesting for me to review how Fling! evolved. My notes show how the writer is so intricately interwoven into her work. I was not only unearthing my characters as I wrote, but I also was excavating myself, though at times it’s difficult to know the difference. Something similar happened in the second novel I published (Curva Peligrosa) and also released Freefall: A Divine Comedy that features one of my zaniest characters, Tillie Bloom.

I would love to hear if other writers have had similar experiences!

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