How To Write About Yourself

I have always been a novelist.

Before I was even a writer, I would take myself on wild trips to fantasy lands while my body remained in maths class. Often, these flights of fantasy began in the mundane; what if the student who came to deliver borrowed textbooks were actually a mage with a grudge against our history teacher, the one who drank whisky in the cupboard? What could doddery, wobbly, fumbling old Mr Droom do to defend himself? They were most often born from boredom; what if the priest was secretly possessed by a demon? Would he be able to say mass without giving himself away? Would there be an exorcism performed before we got as far as the Hail Mary?

In all of these (many, many) stories, I was the central protagonist. T’was I who duelled the mage! T’was I who outed the demon and sent it back to hell! T’was I who brought excitement to greyscale classrooms and drew thanks from teachers and parents alike for protecting them, rather than the detention I knew I’d really get if I did anything even remotely exciting.

When I read, too, devouring books at a pace that challenged our limited school libraries and my parent’s wallets and my own night’s sleep, I was always the protagonist. In the name of such greats as Harry Potter, Scout, Tiffany Aching and countless others, I rode dragons and giraffes and travelled through time, learned to sail and fly and sing, alternatively bowing and dancing and pickpocketing my way through London and Stockholm and Venice. I fought wars in the names of villains and heroes and was, in turns, a swashbuckling villain and a devastating hero on my own terms. And I was always, always, the protagonist.

But the first novel I ever wrote – the one that will sit unfinished on my first, languishing windows vista laptop – the first novel I ever wrote was in third person.

Skip forward nearly a decade and probably hundreds of thousands of words later (I’m not even kidding – I write a LOT) and I rarely, if ever, write in first person. It’s not something I’ve ever considered as a stylistic choice before. It seems to come naturally. My novelling process tends to begin with character notes in the form of short scenes of interaction, whether it be with each other or their world, and from there I spin plots and details until all of the spaces have been filled, seemingly, of their own accord. I have never paid much attention to stylistics beyond the basics of modulation and variation before.

But now I’m on the other side of the world, apropos to learn, and it certainly isn’t letting me go without having taught me a very sound lesson.

I spent my first year at university studying creative writing in a spread-eagled sort of way. I dabbled in both scriptwriting and poetry, enjoying each to their own ends, but ostensibly with the intention of improving my prose. Scriptwriting has helped give me direction, to be concise, make every word count, and to shape a character and story through dialogue; the predecessor of successfully balancing the age-old conundrum ‘show don’t tell’. Poetry brought me back to basics, showing me how to pick apart words for their meanings and roots, to infer and connote and be more liberal with my style, shunning cliché’s whilst also knowing why they worked, and learning to paint my scenes instead of simply show them.

And then came Australia. The subjects were entirely different; I hardly even knew what most of them meant. I had intended to broaden my knowledge again, bring in from new sources what might positively influence my prose. However, the awareness of my third, final and defining year of study was looming, and with it, the prospect of a dissertation project and modules for which I would struggle to fit the pre-requisites after a term on exchange.

In the end, the only module I chose with my much loved and by now much neglected novelling in mind seemed hopeful; Novel and Memoir. Of four modules, it shared half a title with one, but I had to at least hope that one eighth of my study time would be enough.

At my very first lecture, it became clear that this would not be the case. Instead, I was plunged head-first into the world of the autobiography. A subject that, until February, I had not dedicated more than perhaps two entire seconds of thought to attempting. Floundering in a subject that I had barely even read into, I struggled through a reading list that had apparently been available for two months, and which some kindly soul had the heart to show me where to find about two weeks into term. I really tried. I tried everything. In fact, I tried anything and everything that my lecturer suggested, everything that either my tutorial leader or fellow students could offer.

My most abject failure; ‘write about something that you don’t want to write about’.

In hindsight, I probably should have seen that particular downfall coming. A week and a half after the deadline has gone whizzing past (thank you, Douglas Addams) I threw in something too-short, badly written, and which I largely submitted due to my own stubbornness to prove that I had at least tried. Unfortunately, however hard you a try, a missed deadline is an automatic fail at QUT. Side note: it wasn’t all there was to the situation. None of my time in Australia has been easy sailing, to the point where I didn’t even have the energy to help myself sometimes. I should have applied for mitigating circumstances; I didn’t. But that was the reason it didn’t get submitted, not the reason that it didn’t get written. I was too embarrassed at the time to tell my parents what had really happened, but it was simple enough.

To write something so personal, so close to my heart, and not have it absolutely perfect, would have killed me to submit. I didn’t even know how to start doing it justice. So I simply… didn’t.

A month later, I wrote an article about coming out. It was about fighting my own dragons, in a way, fighting the battle my classroom self would never have been able to imagine. I posted it on this blog. It was the most intensely personal article I have ever written, and it got the largest response. The two were not necessarily related, however, it was undeniable that I had written something about myself, in the first person.

So why?

Because I already knew the language. I have written in a community with a high proportion of non-heterosexuality for nearly as long as I have been writing at all. I had been surrounded by similar stories, both real and fictionalised, and so intensely varied in their formation, that I was able to come to terms with my own in words that satisfactorily conveyed my meaning without causing me any anxiety about being misunderstood, or worse, pitied, for my experience. I was able to be myself, and in the process of publishing it, felt like I had accurately represented both my personality and my experiences. I had, successfully, written about myself, as myself.

And then I had another lecture. It was not a Novel and Memoir lecture. It was, in fact, a Stylistics lecture. It was called pronouns and stealth words, and it dealt with one very specific subject; the language of trauma.

You see, nobody reaches the end of their teenage years without feeling sad at least once, and even in the best of circumstances, many of us have experienced personal traumas. I’m not alone in being counted among them. However, I had never read about it. I’d hardly talked about it. I’d barely even thought about it since it happened. I could not possibly write about it. And yet. And so. When asked to write about something I didn’t want to write about, it was the obvious choice. But it wasn’t that I didn’t want to; I couldn’t. I didn’t have the language. I couldn’t write it as myself.

Until those ten minutes changed everything. It was simple enough; what do people do when they write about trauma?

One of the most common things is to switch to second person or to distance oneself from the prose entirely; to have the action occur at a distance, through ‘you’ instead of ‘I’, or a lack of ‘I’ at all. That helped a lot. If I could be allowed to pretend that I was telling somebody else’s story and not my own, it was easier. There are many other things, many other stylistic techniques, that double as both emotionally impactful for the reader and easier for the writer. They are tied, you see; it is equally as difficult to breathe fire as it is to be burnt by it. It is easier, even natural for me to avoid the actual details of the event, to infer from details and conversations and symbolism and tone so that I do not have to relive it in full; and as a result, the reader naturally experiences the full emotional realisation of such an event almost by understanding the inability to explain it.

And so the first lesson of how to write about myself was learned; ironically, in the wrong module. The second assessment for my Novel and Memoir module was allowed to be fictionalised, and so it was; heavily. It has autobiographical elements, but that’s all. My exercise for Week 11 of my Stylistics portfolio, however, is entirely autobiographical. It’s a memoir. It’s my story. Perhaps I’ll even post it on here someday.

Writing is difficult. I sometimes feel like somebody has sat me back down in my first year of school and told me to re-learn the entire English language, complete with all my preconceptions about it. It’s an ongoing journey. I knew what I was doing, apparently, when I decided to call this blog a Bildungsroman. I don’t know if I’m coming out of it a better person, to be honest, but that was only half of my reason for travelling anyway.

In my first Stylistics class, our tutor asked us to describe our writing in one word. Mine was ‘improving’. Strange, that in the ensuing four months, that seems to be the only thing about my writing that hasn’t changed at all.

Also, for those interested; this blog post is a stylistics exercise too. In *deep breath* polysyndeton, asyndeton, leitmotifs, the resumptive modifier, anaphora, epistrophe, leitwortsils, and parallelism. A.k.a repetition.

Thank you.

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