A Writer's Pitfall: Art Imitating Life

They say that life imitates art. This might be true. But it’s also true that art imitates life. After all, artists can do no better than to draw on their own life experience and to create works that interpret some form of the world—that is, some form of life—through their own unique (and many times not so unique) lens. Thus, I believe that all art is ultimately—in some way, shape or form, however slight—autobiographical. With one’s own life and experience guiding a creative work of fiction, there exists a major pitfall that the writer needs to be wary of, that of creating art that merely imitates life.

This is especially dangerous when one’s novel is semi-autobiographical. Well, to be completely honest, I am speaking about my own experience as a writer; I simply imagine that many other first-timers will come across this pitfall.

My novel is, as I’ve said, very personal to me (that is not to say that it is a very intimate or personal-feeling novel). It is also based on true events in my life. And so it is in this way that my art is imitating life.

Art, however, must transcend life. Life itself is rather ordinary for the most part. And so one of the devices I use is to find meaning and drama in everyday occurrences. This is because, for idealists and inwardly intense people such as myself, every single day of life is a war, an ideological war. You are fighting the pressures of society. Do you conform to what your peers are doing, or do you march to the beat of your own drum? Do you go drinking with your friends to get along with them, or do you politely decline because you do not drink? Do you go to nightclubs to try to find a girl to have sex with because that is what people just do when hoping to possibly find a girlfriend, or do you stick to your guns and do things your own way? In each of my chapters, protagonist Mark is faced with a test of identity. The world—or rather, his own small world—is an assault on his identity at every turn. The question I hope to raise in my readers: how much of yourself should you give up in order to fit into the world? Where do you even fit in? Can you ever fit in? Should you try to fit in? It is not necessarily the large dramatic events in your life that define who you are, but the little decisions that add up that shape what you will do in those big moments of life.

Of course, Mark is based largely on myself. He is younger, and he is different from me in some important ways. But because he is based on me, he is at risk of being a work-in-progress that will remain in-progress forever. If he is based on my life, and my life has yet to end, then the novel’s end can only come at the end of my own life.

I realized this early on in the writing process. About twelve chapters into the novel, I decided that Mark must be different from me. He had to become his own character, not simply my own self expressed on a page. Not unlike a concept found in Batman Begins, Mark must become greater than me so that he transcends the average human being and can become a symbol: a symbol of loneliness. That is not to say that he needs to be a better man than I. Rather, Mark needs to feel more than I do. He must see things more quickly and think more rapidly than I can. He must be more isolated and lonely than I am. He must be an intensification of everything that characterizes me. Mark must think about things that I rarely do, and think about them at times when I would not. He must be more inwardly vivid and outwardly average than I am, and more human. And then, from there, he must also be a character who is not a carbon copy of me, but a kindred spirit. Mark must not be a copy of Wistful Writer, but his own person, a young man with whom I can chat with for hours on end. And at the end of those hours, I should come away with something interesting, something I may not have known before or thought about before.

It is difficult to write a novel that is so close to me, that is so inspired by the real events in my own life. Recently, I was walking down Lexington Avenue to the subway station, and the streets were crowded. People in a rush were frustrated with an obstruction ahead: a young child riding his bike with his father walking alongside him. In contrast to the frowns and the annoyed sucking of teeth, I looked upon the father and son with a gentle smile. Unlike New Yorkers, whose vicious pace of walking tends to blur their vision, I am a slow walker who prefers to enjoy the fresh air and the sounds of the city as I walk to my destination.

I thought that this would make a fine addition to my novel, for it illustrated the stark contrast between myself—erm, Mark—and the rest of his fellow New Yorkers. The problem is, I’ve already written lots of scenes involving young children and Mark’s tenderness towards them. Yet another one would not add to my novel. Yet, I strongly considered adding it nonetheless. Unfortunately, the reason was out of egotism. It actually happened to me, and I want to put this artistic interpretationof what happend to me in my novel to share with the world, goes my thinking.

And it’s entirely foolish and selfish. I ultimately decided that I should no longer take events from my life to put into the novel because these illustrative events happen to me all the time. Well, not really all the time, but often enough where my novel would never end if I kept incorporating those scenes into it. Thus, I made the decision that my art should, at this point, no longer be imitating life. As an artist, I need to choose what to show and what not to show. And I must be efficient with my illustration. I must have the discipline to express as much as I can about Mark in a given event. Anyone can write a stream of a thousand events that can show the character of someone. I must do so in much less time and much less space. I must take the very best of my entire story and distill it into its must rudimentary elements so that its impact is intensified. I mustn’t waste my reader’s time, energy, or attention. Each and every scene must achieve three things for the reader: entertain, interest, and inform. I must entertain my reader so that she will have a reason to continue reading. I must interest her in Mark’s inner life, his character. And I must inform her of Mark’s inner life, as well as the other characters. There is no room for egotistical little scenes where I show off my fabulous writing skills that are nothing but mere rhetorical devices. I absolutely must keep the novel lean, unfettered by the meaningless segments of my life.

When art imitates life too much, art suffers. Life is dreary and long enough as it is; art must transcend it. While all artists need a sense of egotism to drive them to complete their work, beginners must be wary of the pitfall of having their art imitating their own life too much. I see it in much of the amateur fiction floating around out there, even in the hallowed columns of The New Yorker (who knows, maybe some of the pieces are even from pros). One must always write in service to the story, and not to massage one’s ego. And an artist must always ask whether there is a reason for any particular detail other than that it is but a mere reflection of what happened in reality. Fiction must transcend reality; and for that reason, when art is nothing more than a mirror of life, it is of little value to all but the most profoundly bored and pedantic academics whose livings rely on excruciatingly mundane analyses of unreachable and indecipherable texts.

  • Anna

    I think that what youre talking about is what loads of writers experience too.  I think a lot of first time writers end up just writing in some way about their own lives and I don't think that there is anything wrong with it.  But I think we would both agree that sometimes you can tell that the novel is not much more than a reimagination of someone's autobiography.  As usual, you make some very good points!

  • Anna

    Hmm…my comment must've gotten lost, I hate it when that happens!

    Anyway, I don't feel like typing it all out again, but I think that you, as usual, make some very good points!  I read a lot, and sometimes I feel like the novel isn't much more than a reimagination of the author's autobiography. I am actually now going over my own writing and I'm  horrified at what I'm seeing!

  • wistfulwriter

    Hi Anna,

    Thank you for your kind words, they do mean a lot to me.  I'm glad that I'm not the only one who notices these sorts of things in books that we read!