“[T]he art of fiction makes composites, expands, extends, alters…” (Nin, Ch. 4, location 1991)
In Anais Nin’s book The Novel Of The Future, Nin devotes a chapter to diary writing. Nin was known for her volumes of published diaries, some published during her lifetime, some posthumously, as much as for her fiction. In the chapter, she explains that she wrote her diaries in conjunction with her fiction but that the diaries were always her place of truth and authenticity:
“As a child, I wrote many adventure stories a la Jules Verne. I filled a complete magazine each month for my brothers. At twenty, I wrote a bad novel. At twenty-one bad short stories. At twenty-five another bad novel… I preferred the freedom of the diary. To write always about what interested me, not what I should be writing. To be open and not self-conscious. To say everything (Ch. 5, location 2622)
It is interesting to me that Nin found the diaries more freeing than fiction and I can certainly see her point. Diaries are meant to be private, uncensored places for people to engage their thoughts and emotions, a place to center the self. For most of us, they are meant only for our own eyes or the eyes of a select few so we can be honest about the good, the bad, and the ugly in our lives. We can liberate in our fears, pains, joys, and anger without fear of being judged or condemned because we are less than perfect and only human.
But my place of freedom has always been fiction. There is something freeing to me about couching my most dangerous beliefs and emotions in characters that are not me and in a story that is not mine. Fiction takes on a special place of revelation for me because it was always the place I could unveil myself. I grew up in an environment where speaking honestly and openly about emotions was a discouraged. It is difficult, especially for a child, to speak freely when he or she knows the next lecture, the next critique, the next invalidation of the truthfulness of his or her experience is just around the corner.
My sister and I joke about our father’s obsessive need to always criticize. As adults, we can be amused when sharing a thought or opinion or feeling meant having to deal with his “I suggest” lectures. My father always presented his demands for how we should behave and be as if he were giving us a choice. He could see no one’s way as right but his own so his “suggestions” were really orders on how we should be. And he made it very clear in the tone of his voice and his attitude that he thought that if we didn’t follow his advice, the end results would be disastrous.
So I learned to censor my feelings and thoughts when I spoke to my parents, learned to chose my words carefully, to be vague and misleading without actually lying (because I still value a relationship with them). I turned instead to exploring my beliefs and emotions in fiction. It was a way of gaining perspective of myself and my world, of getting some distance and creating a narrative that had nothing to do with me and at the same time touched me deeply. By extension, what touches the artist has the greatest potential of touching others.
Nin herself admits that she eventually realized that the observations she made in her diary were bound by reality in ways that they were not in fiction:
“What… drove me into fiction was that in the diary I could only describe characters who were in some way related to me, whom I could see. But I was not able to cover their life outside of me, to see all around them. I became aware of this limitation.” (Ch. 5, location 2718-2719)
Though Nin talks specifically of diary writing, as I mention in this post, observing and interpreting experience is the nature of the artist, whether he or she records it in a diary or not. And it is this transformative power of fiction that, to me, makes it so liberating.
I discussed here about the novel I began more than ten years ago. I set the novel aside but could not let it go because I realized that in the emotions and relationships and personalities I had managed to express in it for the first time in my life were authentic to me. Writing the novel freed me to explore the places I had always been led to believe would destroy me (the unmentionables, as the matriarch of my story calls them). Even in my personal journals I never was able to examine these emotions and revelations because the frame of the fictional narrative, characters, and setting brushed away the ghosts that were making me afraid to enter those rooms of fire.
So if fiction is the liberator of the imagination, it is also the liberator of the censoring voice that I had in myself. And this allows me to make sense of my world and relate to others.
Nin, Anais. The Novel of the Future. Sky Blue Press. The Anais Nin Trust, 2014 (original publication date 1968). Kindle digital file.