On writing fictional characters emerging from real life experiences

This is a slight variation on the speech I gave at the Emerging Writer’s Festival 2014.

I’ve been writing since I was about eight years old. Over this time I’ve developed a very honest, confessional voice, as I’ve found this to be the most rewarding to write and gives me the largest range to explore the themes and topics that matter to me. I’ve always taken writing very seriously as a craft, but I’ve only started thinking of it as a career recently.

A few years ago, I had my first short story published and from then things moved relatively quickly for me. Within a year, I’d had three short stories published and I was talking with an editor about my novel.

For the first time, I started to think that people may actually read my work. What I learnt quickly was that I couldn’t worry about how my work would be received. I get too anxious when I think about it, I start to become calculated with my writing and try manufacturing fiction that will please everyone. I decided to just focus on the craft itself and leave how it was received to those who are receiving it.

So, when people started to talk to me about my work, it was a surprise to me what questions I’d get – particularly when they’d ask me whether or not it was true. In retrospect it’s a pretty obvious to thing for people to ask, considering the honesty of the voice I use.
Like my second story that was published was about an operation I had to have a stoma put in and get a colostomy bag.

The editor actually sent me an email saying that, she hoped she didn’t offend me, but she wanted to know whether or not my story was actually non-fiction, even though I’d categorised it as fiction.

When I read this same story out at the Wheeler Centre event called Debut Mondays, one of my friends who is there asked me whether it was true. I said no, it is fiction. And she went: ‘really?’.

Now, I know they know I know what these categories of fiction and non-fiction mean and that I’m, you know, capable of categorising whether something’s fiction.

I thought that, perhaps, they thought I was little too embarrassed to admit that these things had actually happened and that I was calling it fiction to hide the fact that it’s true.

The same thing happened with my novel. When I’d tell people it was about a homosexual boy in the Melbourne orthodox Jewish community. I would get asked, understandably, whether I was gay. I would say, no, but it’s based on someone close to me. To which someone said: ‘is that really just you, and your just saying it’s someone else.’

What I’ve come to realise is that these questions are actually the greatest compliments I can receive about my writing, because one of the filters I have whenever I put anything to paper, is that this character could be a real person.

And there’s a hell of work that goes in to authenticating the characters in fiction to give it that feel of truth. I’ll spend months getting into the minds of the characters and gossip about them with my friends as if they were real people. So, we could dissect their motivations and think about them from all different angles.

With my novel, I did set it in the community I was brought up in and in the school I went to. I really was raised religious and the laws and customs within Judaism are all true. I think, reasonably, people may assume that I drew on real life people as well. So, When my book was picked up, I could sense some nervousness amongst my family and friends, that the book might expose family secrets, or embarrass the people close to me.

But, I felt safe about the book’s reception amongst the people close to me, in that nobody will be personally hurt or embarrassed by me writing it, because there’s nobody who can raise their hand and say, I am that character. And this is because, I treated it first and foremost as a work of fiction. And, as I said before, even if I try to base a story on a real character, I find I always move away from the real life person to fulfil the needs of the story.

No writer can ever have that much control over why a person will open their book. But, you can have a say on why a person will finish a book and why a person will love a book. And that will always come down to how well the story is told and what insights into our lives the novel can offer.

I’m very proud of this novel. I’ve never been happier with a piece of writing. I think and hope that the characters are relatable. So, when I think of my family and friends opening the book out of fear of finding themselves in there. I kind of hope that they do. Just not in the way that they were expecting.

On writing ‘overly personal’ blog posts.

This post originally appeared on Inside a Dog, where I was a writer in residence for the month of August.

When I started writing, I never expected that my work would be read by anyone. There’s such a negative mentality amongst young writers about the likelihood of our writing ever being read, that I just assumed my work would go unnoticed.

This was a blessing in disguise, as it meant I wrote anything that came to mind without fear of what people would think. When I was twenty-four I wrote a short story about having an operation to have an ileostomy, which is a surgery where they bring a section of your bowel out from your skin and you put a colostomy bag over it.

I didn’t expect the story to get published. When it was, I felt suddenly vulnerable, as I’d put myself out there in a way I never had before. I felt embarrassed about what I’d written and was scared because anyone who wished to read the story would know something so intimate about me.

The story was published in a magazine called Voiceworks, which is a literary magazine that features work of writers under 25. After it was published, I had a few people message me saying that they really loved the story and that they appreciated the honesty.

I learned quickly that there was no danger in sending this story out for publication. I felt oddly empowered having my ‘vulnerabilities’ out there, because now I was taking ownership over them. If I hid them away, then they would take on ‘shameful’ connotations. Yet, if I wrote about them, they were been translated into something empowering – at least the way I saw it.

As I’ve been blogging, I’ve taken on a similar philosophy, in that I will share a lot of my ‘vulnerabilities’ and secret emotions. What I’ve discovered is that these emotions and experiences aren’t unique to me.

When I started receiving encouraging comments and messages about how much people could relate to the posts, I began to wonder why I ever felt possessive over these experiences. I’m not particularly possessive of my possessions, so why am I of my experiences? These are just experiences I’ve been present for. They’re not ‘mine’. These are experiences of being alive, which we all share. So why not talk about it?

Of course, writing these sorts of posts isn’t for everyone. But, for me, I don’t mind.

On Treating Writing as a Form of Play

This post originally appeared on that amazing website Aerogramme Writers’ Studio.

For years before my novel was published, I felt insecure about whether or not I was a ‘real’ writer. I don’t think this is a unique anxiety amongst unpublished authors and I responded to this anxiety in the way I think many people do: I romanticised the act of writing.

I told myself that the burden of writing fiction was thrust upon me and I had no choice but to sit each night and delve into the unknown to produce works of genius. Writing like this didn’t flow easily for me. And as a result, it was hard to read. The prose were pretentious and calculated. It was clear that everything I wrote was me begging the reader to think of me as a genius.

I told myself that if it was easy to write it meant that it wasn’t any good. Good fiction needed to be sweat over. If it was hard, it meant I’d worked at it and it was worthy.

This attitude to writing was one I’d been carrying around in my head since I was a kid. On my weekends and days off, I wrote all day. It was all I thought about. I’d obsess over the stories, especially the syntax, running through sentences over and again in my head until I’d memorised them.

I have a habit of over analysing myself, but I think I obsessed over writing as a childish way to simplify things, as I was not in an emotional position to take on the complexities of life.

It felt safer to focus on this alone, as it meant I didn’t need to focus on many of the pressures we all face, such as finding a job and becoming financially independent, or worrying about the things that may have been more specific to me, such as the Crohn’s Disease and my recent decision to no longer remain an orthodox Jew.

As I’ve spoken about previously, when I started socialising and earning my own money, I found that writing didn’t need to take on the task of carrying my entire sense of self and keeping my anxieties at bay. I felt more comfortable with my life and could relax and have fun with my writing.

As a result, my writing immediately improved, because I was treating it as what it really was, which is a form of play. In not romanticising it, I could allow myself to be crap for a little while and acknowledge that it was something I needed to learn to do, rather than some pure expression that flowed flawlessly through me.

The first short story that I had published was one that I’d ‘let go’ for and allowed myself just to enjoy the writing process. Yet still, even knowing that the healthier approach was to try and enjoy it, I still fell back into old habits.

Shortly after my first short story was accepted for publication, I needed to have a small procedure due to the Crohn’s Disease, which required that I spend a few nights in hospital. Before I began the bowel prep, I received an email from the editor of Voiceworks with the final track changes on my story.

Before I started drinking the solutions, even though I’d been fasting all day, I did the edits on my story. In my head, I marked this as my commitment to writing fiction. It showed how important this was to me, how I would overcome any obstacle to pursue this craft.

In retrospect I see this as deluded and pretentious. I should have just said I was in hospital and asked for a few more weeks on the edits. I’m sure they would have been more than happy to oblige.

I now see that occasion as a lesson in what not to do. I will never force myself to write.

Now I write every few days, while thinking of my stories every day because I want to, not because I feel I have to. If I write until two in the morning it’s because I’m having fun, not because I need to validate that I’m a real writer.

I figure if I want the reader to stay up until two in the morning reading my book, I should be able to enjoy writing it until that time. I realise now that a reader will enjoy reading the novel half as much as I enjoy writing it. I need to glow as I’m writing to know a reader will feel this as they’re reading it.

I find that writing obsessively, telling myself it’s work, a burden that was thrust upon me, snuffs out that sense of fun. And I will produce a novel I wouldn’t even want to read.

On writing a gay character, even though I’m straight.

This post originally appeared on Inside a Dog, where I was a writer in residence for the month of August.

My first novel, The Boy’s Own Manual to Being  Proper Jew, is about, Yossi, a homosexual teenage boy living in the Melbourne Orthodox Jewish community. I was raised orthodox myself and felt pretty comfortable writing about an orthodox teenager. I could just draw on memory.

Seeing that I’m straight, though, writing a gay character was a bit more a challenge. I was scared I would offend gay readers who felt that I’d misrepresented them. I guess we’re all a bit scared of offending people.

So, I took a lot of care in writing Yossi. The way I approached the task was by thinking about him without categorising terms that would separate him from me. Seeing that Yossi is gay and I am straight, and terms ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ are ones that categorise our sexual orientation, I removed those words.

So, instead of thinking: ‘Here is a young gay man who is sexually attracted to a bisexual boy,’ I could instead say to myself: ‘Here is a human being who is sexually attracted to another human being.’ And then I’m able to think: ‘Oh, well I’m a human being who is sexually attracted to other human beings. How do I feel when I’m attracted to someone? Am I scared, excited, nervous? Do I think about them all the time? Do I want them to like me? Do I have expectations?’

Now that my book has been out for a month, I’ve had some wonderful feedback from both gay and straight readers who’ve said that they could really relate to Yossi. This response highlighted something to me I think already knew: we’re all very much the same deep down. It’s just a matter of taking that step to empathise with someone else.

And in the end, isn’t that what one of the major roles of fiction is? But still, sometimes I wonder whether I had the right to write a gay character seeing that I’m straight. Would love to hear what you think on this matter.

On losing my pleasant memories while depressed.

I was diagnosed with depression and OCD when I was seventeen, however I was unwell for about two years before that.

The depression crept up slowly. I found it harder to concentrate on my studies and it became difficult to socialise. Another thing which I lost, which I didn’t realise at the time, was access to nice memories. Others may have a different experience of depression, but I found that I distorted the memory of my life to focus only on the negative things.

When I started on antidepressants which worked for me, Avanza if you’re wondering, I found that they didn’t work right away. There was still a long period of adjusting to being on the medication.

As I’ve talked about previously, I found socialising to the missing ingredient to my emotional development. In that, when I began socialising, I started to feel much better – I had more energy, confidence and I could concentrate better. Overall I was feeling much less anxious and my mood didn’t drastically dip for no reason. I finally felt that I had some control over my emotional state.

It was at this state that I noticed the nice memories return. Whenever I’d talk to people about my life, I noticed that I’d word it differently to how I ever had. As I spoke, I would have mini realisations about how some aspect of my life which I’d always complained about, wasn’t necessarily that bad.

Every day, I’d have simple nice childhood memories return. I quickly realised how influential to my day to day life having access to pleasant memories could be. It can be as simple as making you smile while you’re on the tram or being as fundamental as allowing you to feel more hopeful for the future, as you know things have gone well in the past. It also helped me to see the people in my life and my upbringing in a new way.

I realised, despite all my moodiness, I’d had a very privileged upbringing. I went to a good school and never had to worry about whether I’d be fed or have somewhere to sleep.

Even with my experience with illness, which we might argue is a negative thing to experience, I received the best medical care that anyone, anywhere in the world, at any point in history, would have access to.

I think seeing our upbringing in a more mature, appreciative perspective is something that most of us go through when we leave school or university. Perhaps it was delayed in my case due to the emotionally stunting effect of the depression? Or maybe I should get out of the habit of analysing myself.

Anyway.

Whenever I’m asked if my novel is autobiographical, I always explain that the characters and the plot are fictional, yet the environment which Yossi, the protagonist, lives in is based on memory.

A large part of the motivation to write this book was the desire to sit with these pleasant memories, which I’d only recently been reunited with. I’d spend nights simply sitting with these nice memories and I started creating the atmosphere for the book by writing these memories down. And, in retrospect, I think it was one of the most enjoyable parts of the process.

On the literary world’s obsession with age.

The post first appeared on the Kill Your Darlings Blog.

I used to be obsessed about what age I would be when I had my first novel published. I’d go on the Wikipedia pages of every famous writer I could think of to check how old they were when their first book came out.

I was jealous of writers who’d been published at my age or younger, and had a sense that there was a ticking clock on the whole thing. I’ve learnt that this isn’t a unique feeling, that many authors feel this way about publication.

I don’t think this line of thinking is unique to writers’ natures. I don’t think it’s a sentiment the ‘industry’ creates in us exclusively.

I think it’s an example of the larger cultural trend of passing judgment on the way each person lives their life – judgments we pass on ourselves and others. It isn’t enough that somebody does something. We need to know when, how and why they did it, so we can compare it to the other people who have done that thing and see who did it ‘better’. Then we can compare these people to ourselves, and use them as a barometer for how well we’re doing at this whole life business.

This may be a long bow to draw, but I wonder if the emphasis on writers’ ages has to do with the way some writers are seen as ‘life commentators’.

For me at least, I found that I was ignored when I was young, and my opinions dismissed as immature. Many people I’ve spoken with seem to share a similar experience.

To publish a novel at a young age has connotations of being ‘wise beyond your years.’ We have insight into life before we’re expected to. I guess it can make us feel like prodigies.

Although, of course, this is all if we choose to buy into these ideas, which many people I know don’t. I know that I have moments when I feel competitive and moments that I don’t. It’s never a static emotional state.

Since my first book came out, I’ve realised that a writer’s ‘career’ is not as clearly planned out as I first thought. I doubt many of us have much control over what we write and when, or when it gets published. I might finish my next book this year and it may not get published officially for a year after that. So, when do I measure it from?

All my efforts of manipulation over the timeline of my life are kind of pointless. At the end of the day, my first book came out when I was the age that I was, and my next book will come out when I’m as old as I will be then. In the same way that I will die at the age that I will die. Sometimes I have to remind myself to stop trying to live up to a certain set of life goals purely so that it reads well on my Wikipedia page.

Which leads me to my next and possibly overly sentimental point: we don’t need to measure our lives based on our ‘achievements’.  We can measure it with a focus on so many other things: the relationships we’ve had, the places we’ve traveled to, the greats nights out we’ve had.

I’d love to add here: ‘or, better yet, we could not measure it all.’ But I know that, at least for me, I can’t break habits of thought that easily. I will always be slightly competitive, I will always judge myself – and others as well – and I will always measure my life in some way.

The only time I really feel free of these unpleasant thought patterns is when I’m in the midst of writing a really good story. Everything just stops mattering for a little while. I find that the real beauty of writing a story is how it allows me to think in ways I don’t allow myself to otherwise. It’s liberating. It also reminds me that, despite my competitive streak, the real reason I’m writing is because I just love to do it. And the real reason I’m sending it off to get published, is that I want my work to be read.

And getting to talk to people about my book has proven to be just as exhilarating as writing the thing.

On why I don’t think it’s helpful to say: ‘the world should be atheist’. Despite, being one.

I am, as I’ve previously talked about, an atheist. However, just because I am an atheist, doesn’t mean I think that everyone in the world should be.

I know many would disagree with this point, and I mean no offence, however the way I see it is that religion is something that emerged from society, rather than something that was handed down to earth from a Divine plane. Although, majority of religions began an incredibly long time ago, I don’t think they are a relic of the past. If the dominant religions and ideas of God that exist today had never been formed, I think we would re-create similar philosophies and organisations to fulfil a relevant need that religion offers.

Religion holds a very important function in many of our lives. It offers a sense of purpose, place, identity, direction and helps manage the fears of chaos and mortality. Of course, pointing out the emotional benefits of religion, is not my way of invalidating it. I always feel reluctant to voice my ideas on religion, because, judging by how some people react, there is the implicit assumption that because this is the way I see it, I am saying: ‘those who are religious are wrong, or stupid.’

However, this isn’t the case. I really don’t mind what another’s theological belief is. I don’t think we have as much control over how we see the world than we tell ourselves. I think our views are dictated as much, if not more, by emotion, than ‘controllable’ thought. In the same way that I don’t feel it is a choice to be an atheist, I doubt that for others, their religious belief feels like a choice either.

In my opinion, an argument over religious belief will not lead anywhere, because these are emotional standpoints. Telling a person what they should believe, is as pointless as trying to convince a person whom they should be romantically attracted to.

I know there are many people who separate a belief in God from organised religion. However, I am referring to a belief in a divine Being within a religious movement, the same as or similar to one I was raised in as an orthodox Jew.

Although not everyone will agree on whether or not God, in whatever manifestation, exists, one thing everyone can agree on is that a belief in God exists. And I think this is a far more relevant point.

Billions of people in the world are religious. Religion is an important part of so many people’s lives. Religion has been a relevant part of society for thousands of years. It is irrational to think it will just disappear, because a few atheists are shouting about it on the internet.

Therefore, when someone may talk about how everyone should be atheist, because, for instance, they’re of the opinion that it will lead to a more tolerant society, they are talking about something that will never actually happen. Therefore, it is just talk – just another hollow vision of utopia that leans all its weight on an ideological stand point.

Any vision of society which has a single philosophy and belief system is an oppressive society for those who don’t share that view. And this very idea of a society with a single, dominant ideology, may be the very thing they are accusing religion of propagating.

I know this isn’t a new point, but I think that for those who have difficulties with some aspects of religion, it is far more valuable to discuss and work on a changing face of religion, to work with what we have, rather than pushing the adolescent notion of rubbing out the blackboard and starting again.

I know of many religious people who are doing just that. And I personally think it is admirable.