Author Authenticity

I got criticised by my writing teachers. They said, “You live here, in New Zealand. Draw from that. Write your own experience.”

I live in New Zealand. I’ve done so nearly all my life. It’s a perfectly pleasant country, with a stellar Prime Minister and a competent parliament. I support the All Blacks and I drink local wines. We have great light, nice milk, and L&P. But I don’t write about this country. I don’t set my stories or my poems in this country. Because it’s boring.

I live here. I don’t understand this “write about where you live”. I don’t enjoy writing about New Zealand at all, and nor do I enjoy reading about it. What is the point in escapism if you’re just escaping to place you already live? Give me London and Paris and New York. Give me the far future, the distant past, Discworld and Pern and Westeros. Give me LA in 1940, Hampshire in god-knows-when, a fin de siècle Opera House.

I can’t “write my own experience” and base it in New Zealand. I don’t “experience” New Zealand. I just live here. My teachers nagged me to make my work authentically “New Zealand” but I struggled with that because it’s not authentic. I don’t feel like I belong here – and maybe that’s just a writer thing, maybe there’s no place on earth I’d feel like I belong, and that’s fine. But I can’t channel this place into my work. It feels forced and unnatural. The place I live is in my head; the place I write about is created moment by moment as synapses fire, constantly created and destroyed. A dream world.

I had a lot of frustration in my writing classes for that reason, and by halfway through my poetry class I’d mentally checked out. I didn’t like the work of most of the poets we studied. The composition exercises were boring and didn’t get my creative juices flowing, so when we had to submit a portfolio I found it very difficult to draw from the required number of different composition techniques. They didn’t like verse. There was no study of odes vs. sonnets, no ballads, no discussion on metre. Just a bunch of composition techniques you could find online if you wanted.

And throughout this constant pushing, write from a place of knowledge, write about New Zealand, write about your life. Every New Zealand author has to write about New Zealand. It’s what makes us unique, it’s what makes us authentic. But it’s not authentic for me, and far from making us unique I feel like it makes us all the same. Like some literary force seeks to blend all New Zealand writers into one.

What does it mean to be authentic? What does it mean to draw from your own life? (If people wanted to read about my life,  I’d have more followers on Twitter.) I believe that to connect with people you have to create something authentic, that you have to draw from real emotion, and I do. But when it comes to something more than that, to writing about fibromyalgia or endometriosis, anxiety, university, work – I don’t know. I don’t want to weave these into fiction. I’ll talk about them in poetry but in a vague and sometimes tangential way. These things are a part of my life but some of them are just the things I do and some of them are hindrances and when I’m creating something, I’ll write a blog post, I’ll write an article, but I won’t write fiction. These aren’t things I engage with mentally. They don’t inspire me, they don’t capture emotion for me. They’re just… there. 

Don’t tell me to draw from my life, because what you’ll get will be stilted and boring and heartless. It will be forced, because my life is about absorbing stories and creating new ones, and the life you envision when you look at me is not a life I understand.

Don’t tell me to write about where I live. I don’t really live here. I live somewhere else: in the future, in the past, in worlds yet unmade.

3 thoughts to “Author Authenticity”

  1. *hugs* <3 <3

    I'm so sorry you had to go through that. I mean, if we all only wrote what we lived books would suck. There would be no sci-fi, no fantasy, no horror, etc… Just a lot of mundane contemporary fiction books (not that they are all bad), but why would I want to read about what I already do? Besides, and especially these days when our physical location doesn't necessarily mean much if we have access to the internet – where we live doesn't necessarily have much of an impact on our experiences. Gods know if I was asked to write about my town, I'd probably fail miserably. I've been here 10+ years, but it's only in the last year or so that I've started getting more involved with things/people outside my community.

    Anyway, the point, is I love your stories just the way you write them, and while I'm sure you writing about your NZ experiences probably isn't nearly as boring as you think, you need to write what calls to you and what makes you happy as a writer. Any writing teacher that tries to stifle that creativity is a poor teacher, in my opinion.

    1. <3<3<3 It wasn't that big of a deal, it was just frustrating, you know? You take a poetry course expecting to push boundaries but what they actually want is just the same sort of thing over and over. Everyone has to "explore the page" with weird indents. The year before in my general writing course I'd submitted this poem for the poetry section that I was really proud of - I posted it here ages ago, it has a rhythm to it like a waltz. Bah-da-da, bah-da-da, bah-da-da, etc. So I had adverbs at the ends of some of the lines, because it worked so well with the rhythm. And I got the feedback "It would have been better without the adverbs". Like.... did she not understand the rhythm?? Did she not feel it? Rhythm is the heart of poetry! It really frustrated me - I didn't care about the grade, I just wanted her to understand that her criticism showed she hadn't understood the very basic metre of the poem itself. I wanted her to read it properly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *