By Claire Vaye Watkins
In 2010, the late David Rakoff told NPR’s Terry Gross, “I’ve always bridled at the term ‘memoirist’ because I always wanted to be known for the quality of my writing as opposed to the particulars of my biography.” To me, Rakoff’s confession is the best distinction between a writer and a person who writes. A person who writes is fine with being noted for the particulars of their biography. For them, this is the purpose of a book. See for example almost every celebrity autobiography and political memoir.
Writers, on the other hand, want to be evaluated for the thing we make, rather than the context in which we make them. Perhaps this is because we have control of what we make, whereas we have no say in our biography, nothing to do with the ordeal of our birth, frightfully little to do with the parade of suffering and joy thereafter. Our miseries do not make us special, and I know this firsthand because the wounds of my own life are ordinary fodder for melodrama: cancer, addiction, suicide, orphanhood. I had nothing to do with the more operatic notches along my personal timeline, and yet people often praise me for them.
You’re so brave, they say, meaning, “Your mother committed suicide, and you managed to write a book.” Meaning, “Your father was in the Manson Family 15 years before you were born, and you manage to go to the grocery store without carving a swastika into your forehead.” I don’t handle these compliments well. I hate how they suggest some hierarchy of suffering I’ve summited; as though we all don’t walk onward everyday against significant headwinds. And, like David Rakoff, I have never wanted to be noted for the particulars of my biography. This is perhaps the reason I became a fiction writer, because I wanted to make something as far from autobiography as I could.
And yet, now that I have written a book, a collection of short stories, a book of fiction, I am often forced to answer the inevitable question: What is your book about? The answer, it turns out, is familiar: cancer, addiction, suicide, orphanhood. I chose fiction because it allowed me to twist away from myself. Yet all those kinks ended up curling inward just the same.
Autobiography abounds. The book emerged as a catalog of my fears, an atlas of the empty spaces in my life — mother, father, home. Somehow Battleborn asserted itself a torch song for Nevada, where I spent nearly my entire life. It is a slow howl sounded in the aftermath of my mother’s suicide. It is a long look at the father I barely glimpsed. It is a gesture of succor for my two sisters, a gesture which, off the page, I am too often incapable of making.
Even more curiously, I don’t hate the ribbons of autobiography woven through the book: the 20-something wanting to be wanted, the undutiful daughter of a troubled mother, the sister ill-equipped to heal a family badly in need of healing, an aunt wishing she could shield her niece from an indifferent world with a wreath of love. Battleborn is at its best when its characters are closest to me. I don’t mean that in the sense that they resemble me, though at first glance many do, not least of all the main character in the opening story, “Ghosts, Cowboys,” who is named Claire Watkins, whose mother committed suicide when she was in college, as mine did; whose father recruited young women to join Charles Manson’s “family,” as mine did. “Ghosts, Cowboys” is a fictional story told using the form of autobiography. It is a story sussing out the gap or overlap between those genres.
But there are other characters in the book who would never be mistaken for a version of me: Manny, a gay madam running a brothel in the desert outside Las Vegas; the object of his desire, Michele, an Italian tourist whose best friend has gone missing in the Mojave Desert; Bud Harris, a retired miner turned hermit and prospector; Magda, the Hispanic teenage girl Harris finds left for dead on the Black Rock Playa; Thomas Grey, who stumbles upon a mysterious cache of debris in a Nevada ghost town; Thomas’ elderly father; Thomas’ preschool-age daughter; Marin, a new mom suffocating under the expectations of motherhood and her failing marriage; Carter, the micromanaging husband who doesn’t trust his wife; Joshua and Errol, brothers from Ohio who light out for California during the Gold Rush. Each of these characters’ experience is beyond the boundaries of my own. I am straight, American, a long way from retirement, white, childless, and not, right now, panning for gold in the Sierra Nevada. Still, to make these characters convincing I found myself looking inward, mining bits of my own experience to make them whole.
I asked myself the same questions I posed to my characters. I looked outward, too, to the people I know well, and gave my characters some of their experiences: Joshua’s rivalry with his indifferent older brother began with my beau’s stories about growing up with his older brother. Marin was born when my niece Delilah was, when her mother’s inability to breastfeed flooded her with feelings of inadequacy and shame. Michele began as, well, Michele, an Italian student I met in Reno, who was exploring the American West by himself and seemed the sadder for it. I mine not only my experiences but also those of the people around me, using what I uncover as the raw material for stories. Joan Didion had other words for my mining: “Writers are always selling somebody out.” But that didn’t stop her, either.
Whether you are selling out yourself or your friends and family, you first must observe. There is perhaps no more essential trait for a writer than curiosity. Ask questions about yourself, your loved ones, complete strangers. Keep your eyes up, ears open, cell phone in your pocket.
Remember also that the particulars of our biographies do not make art of themselves, no matter how many mountains of suffering summited. Don’t lean too heavily on your own story, as it bears little weight in fiction, where our burden is not to tell the truth, but a truth. It doesn’t matter if, as new writers often insist, all this really happened. Sophisticated readers know this, and yet the interplay between fact and fiction tantalizes us. Honest readers ask, “How much of this really happened?” The only people I answer straight are my publisher’s lawyers. The rest I point to Kurt Vonnegut, who begins Slaughterhouse Five saying, “All this really happened, more or less.” To the rest I say, “How much of this really happened? All of it. It happened in your imagination. If I have done my job, these events transpired in your heart and gut.”
I believe every successful piece of art contains some pieces of its creator. We use our own lives to get at the story that cuts close to the bone. Use autobiography to implicate yourself. Use it to tell the story you need to tell, to tell the story on stampede inside you. And let it stampede. Tell the story that scares you, the one you don’t understand, the one you can’t slip a saddle on. Tell it bareback, without worrying where it’s going or what it’ll be. Tell the story you’ve never let yourself tell and let it ask the questions you’ve never let yourself ask. Leave a part of yourself on the page.