Can you separate the art from the artist?
Ever listen to a song you know is based on a real thing or person? You’re So Vain, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald(is that the right title?), any Taylor Swift song ever written? No matter how much the singers deny or confirm, you know it was based on a real person, a place, a time. And when I know, I have a hard time relating to the song.
I can’t listen to Your Body is a Wonderland without wondering if The Ghost Whisperer actually does have a bubblegum tongue and if I liked that song in any capacity to begin with, I would now hate it.
It’s been long held that songwriters have carte blanche when it comes to immortalizing their loves and enemies in prose. They don’t have to add the disclaimer, if this resembles someone, whoops! They can write a song that’s about someone, and everyone knows it is, and then shyly smile and get away with it. Songwriters seem to have the market cornered on the art and the artist most often colliding.
Actors run into the opposite problem. Sometimes people can get so convinced they are a character it can ruin a career or garner the craziest of fans. It’s why TV actors have a hard time transitioning to the big screen. Talent has little to do with it, it’s because they are seen as a character, not a person.
For actors and musicians, it’s a double-edged sword, too. They’re visible. They’re known. When they date an actor, break up in the winter and then write a song titled back to December, we know what you’re talking about, Taylor Swift. When you jump on couches then pretend to be a spy and save the world, we can’t help but wait for your crazy. It’s hard to separate the art form the artist.
When you read a book, it’s even harder. our words are the only thing a reader usually gets. They might follow on Twitter or know them from a signing or the picture in the back of the book, but basically, you’re reading their thoughts. Or are you?
I read books, a lot of them, and never once did I think that Stephen King actually believed you could bury a boy in a graveyard and he would come back evil. I never thought that Gatsby must have a real life counterpart. Only in my wildest dreams does Lestat thrive in New Orleans. And I foolishly believed that each person understood that the art and the artist are separate.
Then I wrote a book.
The first thing, mostly relatives and friends, asked me was, “Who is River based on?” He’s based on no one. He’s based on River. He is the perfect college boyfriend, an artist who looks like a young Jared Padalecki. But that part didn’t so much surprise me. We live in an age of movies, the visual, the recycled and repackaged. The natural instinct is to fit new information into the mold of the known and familiar. Stories are no different.
But the next question, statement actually, i wasn’t prepared for. I had more than one person say, “I never knew you looked at the world this way. Or I didn’t know you felt so strongly about XYZ.”
I was taken aback. I felt nothing like that. My characters did, but not me. I’m the story teller, it’s their story I’m telling. So, of course, I hit the internet. Turns out, most people do think the authors are trying to say something always. In the way an actor is confused with an iconic character, the author cannot be singled-out to have thoughts different than their characters.
After my initial shock of the statement wore off, I simply stated that my characters think those things. My relative rebutted with, but you wrote the character. True. But I write lots of characters. I’m pretty sure I don’t feel the same as the majority of them.
I think there’s a bit of me in each one, you can’t help it, but on the whole, not much of my fiction is based on anything other than what the voices tell me to write.
I’m writing a character currently who loves basketball, which aside from curling, is about the only sport I don’t watch. Why? Because it fits the character. The end.
I argued with my relative until i finally blurted out, “We’re not all Taylor Swift. It’s a made-up story. It didn’t really happen. Let it go.” Needless to say, she’s probably not on the shortlist for buying my next book.
But it got me to thinking, how much “fact” do I put in my books? The book of my heart, which will most likely never see the light of day, has more of me and people around me in it than anything else I’ve written, and because of that, I can’t be objective about it. All my other stories are simply that, stories.
I’m separate from my characters. Most authors are. You’re reading a story, not a lesson. If I tell you my story, i can’t expect you to pick it up and make it your own.
Someday maybe I’ll write a story close to true and thinly veil it for the world to see. Until then, I’ll just keep repeating, no, this one isn’t about you either.