Monday, 6 August 2018

Sacrificing Children On The Altar Of Literature

The two questions any author gets asked the most, are ‘where do your ideas come from?’ and ‘do you use real life people for your characters?’. If the answer to the latter is yes, the follow up question, is ‘do they know?’

The child psychologist Jean Piaget drew up his theories partly through observation of his own children. Sigmund Freud psychoanalysed his daughter Anna and though anonymised, she was the case study for “A Child Is Being Beaten” published in 1919. Neither author was challenged at the time over any questionable ethics, though some of Freud’s modern critics have since rounded on him, not just for the ultimate in Oedipal/Electra Complexes concerning his own daughter, but accusations of virtual incest through opening up her deepest intimacies on the analysand’s couch. 

Both authors would have likely offered up scientific method in any putative defence. However, fiction authors have no such recourse when frequently asked whether we base our characters on real life people. And while our attempts at anonymising (through fictionalising), may just about get us through condemnation for identity theft and lack of consent, when children are used for material that is feasibly an invasion of privacy too far.

I knew I wanted to become a parent, through observing my own childhood as a singleton with a certain dissatisfaction and some resolutions on how I might do it differently.  I was an observer by nature and writing seemed well suited to such a temperament. I started writing stage plays, but when my twin boys arrived. I switched to late night novel-writing since I could no longer devote the time hanging out at theatre bars networking. My early novels barely mentioned children, but now that my sons have attained the age of majority and fledged from home by attending university, I've turned my literary observations to writing about parenting and children. In doing so, have I betrayed their privacy?

The comedian Stewart Lee had a routine about now that he was a parent, his entire life was in service to his children, driving them around to play dates or watching kids’ movies with them, so that he had no real life material to draw on to create a new comedy routine (which of course he adroitly subverts by offering up plenty of comic evidence, eliding Scooby Doo with the political woes of our nation). When you become a parent, one of the things it does is prompt memories of your own childhood in offering perhaps a ready reference to apply to that of rearing your own children. But I had already covered this happenstance through my own reflections that had fed into my desire to become a father in the first place. I may not have always prefigured my parenting actions correctly, but I wasn’t taken by surprise. So the first childhood experiences I offered up to the altar of literature were actually my own. Not quite the scientific method of Piaget and Freud, but I do probably hold the intellectual and emotional rights over my own experiences.

But such content was not enlisted in isolation. There was an echo with the more recent layerings provided by having my own children. But a good deal of what I put into the novel were certain universals about children and in particular child development, rather than details that would identify and out my children as the raw material of the book. Piaget outlined developmental stages which all children go through as their brains mature and although his timeline for such phases has been challenged, the principle remains generally accepted. The same in my book, that language really only enters the picture once the child is able to take on solids through the resultant change in the anatomy of the throat. How we then gain words through imitation long before we know how they are spelled, before we acquire knowledge of the alphabet and the school-borne struggles of mastering the stroke of our pencil to write our letters. From these universals I could proceed to consider how we all acquire our personal forms of self-expression, how much it stems from our parents and how much it deviates as we are able to individuate ourselves. I don’t credit I am betraying any confidences in sharing some observations on these developments. Indeed, one of the arts of novel writing is to make its themes universal enough to speak to a wide diversity of readers. A novel that remains subjective to the experiences of the author is far more likely to fail to communicate. 

In real life I have twin boys. In my novel the protagonist mother has two girls. So my experiences standing on the touchline managing my twin’s Under-9s football team to an FA Fair Play Award couldn’t feed into the novel. However, the overweening ambition of some of the other parents stood there on the touchline screaming at their scions, did inform the novel’s contemplation of the hazy line between a child’s individuation and the parent’s overlaying of it with their own projections for the child, rooted in the parent’s own neediness or unfulfilled dreams.

I also have scenes set in the nursery school playground, but again the mother of girls demands a different depiction than my actual experiences of a father waiting to collect his boys at going home time. Though the playground politics of who talks to who and who shuns who, is likely a universal scenario, standing as a man huddling close to the smattering of other fathers among the preponderant women does ineffably change the dynamics. So while the portrayal of the fictional mother’s isolation reflected my own, I’m happy to report that the by extension isolation of her child, did not reflect the true status of my own twins who were perfectly blended into the social scene of the kids at their school. My fictional mother doesn’t even have the consolation I managed to utilise, of quietly imagining that I would assuredly be in possession of the best record collection of any parent stood in the playground, seeing as I worked in an independent record shop at the time. See, one doesn’t require the direct experiences of one’s own children to get into an infantile mind, one just probe’s one’s own stock of such behaviours.

Further novelistic reflections of pester power in the supermarket, or of the end of service for a teaching toy as all its peripherals are finally and unutterably lost, each represent my reflections looking back on similar incidents; they happened while bringing up my twins, but again there are dual refracting lenses, me as a father casting back to when I was a child so that the outcomes written about is a new synthesis, neither truly representing my childhood nor that of my twins. The choking on a raisin never to the best of my knowledge afflicted either of my boys, while the panic over the body dysmorphia engendered by dolls, was never any direct translation over from “Action Man”TM, seeing as I wouldn’t provide my boys with anything military in the toy department. So a good deal of the work just comes from the imagination, rather than transliteration of actual events, that in another register might appear in a memoir or biography. 

And this is the rub and which returns us to the questions readers ask of authors. Novels do many things, but one of the most significant is that the author takes you inside the mind of his characters, someone likely to have different experiences and thoughts to that of the reader. But where do these characters come from? They come from the mind of the author of course, but ultimately authors are writing about themselves. They may pick characters seemingly diametrically opposed to themselves, but in doing so they are likely tapping into lesser seen parts of their own personality, exploring or imagining themselves in these guises. For a writer cannot write wholly outside of their own experience. Even if a writer employs an anecdote someone else told them, or something they read in a newspaper or saw in a film, it becomes part of them if it enters their stock of memory enough to be recalled when the writer decides to use it in a book. Second hand experience rather than first for sure, but still from within them. So I don’t believe I have pillaged the lives of my children for my novel, only myself. If I'm wrong in believing this, then I guess they will call me out on it. I'll let you know if that's the case.

Published by Dead Ink Books 

Available from Amazon  and all good book shops in the UK

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