Are We What We Write?
I tend to spend as little time as possible re-reading my past books, for the better or for the worse. Maybe there is some value in that form of self-examination, but I can’t usually bring myself to do it. If I do achieve any pleasure from the act, it’s in that feeling I sometimes get, when reading a certain sentence or two, that I have absolutely no idea who could have written that passage.
Someone else obviously wrote that. That’s because I no longer have any sense of what the thought processes were that led to the creation of that phrase, that sentence, that paragraph. So, then, we definitely are not what we write.
On the other hand, we must be… It only stands to reason, doesn’t it?
I had cause to wonder about that question again when I read Desire Lines, the recent short story collection by Mary Soderstrom, whose very attractive cover is shown below. Mary is an American-born Montreal writer, but that’s where the similarities between us end. Well, there are a few others: she is a political animal who spends inordinate amounts of time in volunteer work for community associations that look after the rights of creators. As such, Mary is much appreciated around town as a nearly selfless person.
On the other hand, she’s something of a mystery. You won’t find her hanging around after meetings or other events, trying to continue the action at the nearest watering hole. A private person, I guess you’d say. And that’s just fine.
In Desire Lines, Mary Soderstrom shows herself to be a writer of domestic events, though all her books are not like that. In these stories, there is much about people living under the same roof, or about to, or having just finished doing so. The dramatic events are under the surface, or in the next room, or off screen entirely. This is an effective way to work, because it communicates to readers that they shouldn’t think they know all about what’s going on, or even very much. And that the truth is always elsewhere.
Maybe that style is like the writer herself: you know her enough to know that there are loads of things about her that you don’t know. That can be a situation of great charm – even seduction, I’d be tempted to say, though it would be seduction without the elements of duress. Sensing the secrets behind a person’s façade is a very compelling thing; everybody loves a good mystery.
No one should waste their time trying to calculate how much of this is done with self-awareness, and how much is “natural,” a person’s way of being built up over time, the masks and defense mechanisms and everything else that all of us have. You can’t separate the two. But as I read these stories, often similar in theme but differing enough to keep my interest, I began to build up a portrait of the writer from them. That might have been foolish, but it’s human, that need to decipher, to understand, to build scenarios from what we think we know. At the end of the collection, I had a character: the one who is the writer, the person I thought I knew. The mysterious person who doesn’t want to go out with the gang and say or hear too much.
Then I had to wonder about how much of myself I give away without knowing it in the pages of my novels. That sentence, that paragraph – who could have written it? The authorship seems distant from me because I’m probably distant from myself. Anyone who knows me a little is saying to himself or herself, “There goes Homel again, doing that thing he’s always doing…” I shudder to think. Like most people, I prefer to remain a little bit hidden.