TACKLING LIFE’S CHALLENGES THROUGH WRITING NOVELS
Although the concept is as old as Aristotle, it was Oscar Wilde, in the opening of his 1889 essay, “Decay of Lying” who most famously said: “Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life”. The longer I have been writing fiction, the truer this rings for me.
Sooner or later in the writing process it becomes clear that the themes I have chosen to explore, the dilemmas and problems that my characters are facing are playing out in my own life, or even the lives of my friends and family. ‘My God, that’s just like my character so-and-so did’ I’ll find myself thinking – although not so often saying if it’s happening to someone else, since you know, if your best friend tells you her husband just cheated on her with his first love, the last thing she probably wants to hear is you harping on about how her nightmare circumstances are mirroring those of your current protagonist.
Either way – whether happening to me or someone close – when the ‘life imitating art’ thing strikes, it always comes as a surprise to me, like something mysterious and magic is at work. But is it? Actually, the more I think about it, the more I see it just makes sense. In fact I would argue, that whereas at first it seems, as Wilde says, that it’s life that tends to imitate art, the more you learn how to use your own life as inspiration, the more art begins to imitate life just as much.
My first book, One Thing Led To Another is undoubtedly the purest example of art imitating life in that it was autobiographical – basically a fictionalised account of the column I wrote for two years in Marie-Claire about having a baby with my friend who was not – and is still not to this day – my boyfriend or romantic partner. (We do, however, remain the very best of friends and co-parents!) I can’t over-estimate how helpful writing this novel was for me in the circumstances; as helpful if not more than writing the column.
Fourteen years on and my son being the simplest, greatest joy of my life, I look back and can’t understand what all the fuss was about at the time, falling pregnant at 29 in such circumstances. But needless to say, at the time I was at sea, my head full of questions and powerful emotions. To have a fictional world and a cast of characters through which to explore those emotions was to have a safe place, more effective than any therapist’s couch. I was able to hold myself up to the mirror of my characters and attempt to answer all the scary questions I had through their story: will anyone want me now I am a single mum? Can my baby daddy and I remain friends through all this? Will I be a good enough mum?
There was also the matter of writing the book in the first place. I had a full-time job and a baby at the time and so I had to be incredibly focused and disciplined with my time. It turned out, however, that this focus was exactly what I needed to get out of my own head in my real life and I’d go so far as to say that art imitated my life, yes, but life began to imitate art too. I wrote characters who had to find resolutions and in doing so, I found them for myself; I reached not the same happy ending, but a happy ending all the same.
At the risk of sounding incredibly smug my third novel, How We Met, poured out of me. This was the novel I’d always wanted to write about friendship – my friends being for me, the loves of my life. It was about a group of university friends, about to turn thirty, whose lives are turned upside down when one of the group, Liv, dies unexpectedly. This in itself, sadly imitated life. When I was seventeen, someone I knew at sixth form died unexpectedly. The shock of this untimely death stayed with me and was something that when I became a writer, I wanted to explore: how would the death of a friend, when young, affect you? Would you live your life differently or better?
In How We Met, Liv’s friends, drowning in grief, decide to complete her ‘Things To Do Before I am Thirty’ list, since she can’t do it herself. What they learn in the process, is that sadly, had she survived, she probably would have far too caught up in the messy business of living to concern herself with ‘Climbing the Great Wall of China’ or ‘Learning how to make a Roman Blind” and had she been looking down on them she would probably have been shouting: “Sort out the important things in your lives before ticking things off a list!’
So what were these important things? Although, at 37 at the time of writing, I was a little older than my characters, the dilemmas myself and my friends were wresting with– the ‘important things’ – were very similar: Is this the person I want to be with for the rest of my life? Am I in the right career? Why aren’t I happier? I felt like that novel was a hymn to friendship and to our lives at that time; both helpful and joyous to write. In this case, art imitated life, yes, and life, if it did not exactly imitate art, became enhanced by it. I dedicated the book to my friends, and came to appreciate them all the more for writing it.
Lastly, my latest book Little Big Love is probably the closest to my heart. I have always wanted to write a novel exploring the relationship between a single mother and her only child, since that is my lived experience. It is, I feel, a uniquely intense dynamic, which brings many riches as well as challenges. This was why I was so interested in writing about it: how would my characters navigate this landscape? How would these circumstances colour their reactions to what happens to them? What I didn’t expect, I suppose, when I began to tell Zac and Juliet’s story, was what it could teach me so much about my own.
I spoke to my son, now 14, a lot whilst writing the book. He helped with the authenticity of Zac’s voice, but also with the authenticity of his feelings, mainly because – I began to realise – he shared them. Before I wrote Little Big Love, I worried more about how my son’s circumstances (not having two parents in the same house, not having any siblings, me not being in a stable relationship at the moment) might be affecting his wellbeing. But in writing and talking to my son as I wrote Zac, I discovered things that put my mind at rest, that cheered me; things like how kids have amazing resilience and generally trust in the fact that things will work out, but also most importantly, how they are much happier if you just tell them the truth.
One of the main reasons I wanted to write in the voice of a child was because I wanted to explore and make narrative use of the way a child sees the world. I wanted Zac to shine a light on Juliet’s blind spots. It made me think of the half-truths, the white lies I tell my son – that perhaps we all tell our kids – in order to ‘protect’ them. Who are they serving, him or me? Is this a blind spot for me too? Writing this book helped me come to the conclusion it probably is!
Writing for me then, seems to have become a wonderfully symbiotic experience. The inspiration for my books often lies in my own lived experience at the time of writing, and my writing then provides inspiration for life. If you dream of writing a novel, but are stuck for inspiration or ideas for story, you could do far worse than to start with the deep, rich earth of your own life – the things that worry you, the challenges you’re facing, the things that bring you joy and pain. And to dig deep.
Little Big Love by Katy Regan, is out in paperback on April 19th, published by Mantle, Pan Macmillan.