QUESTION OF THE DAY: What's the emotional difference between writing a confessional memoir and writing a work of pure fiction?
SIMPLE ANSWER: Writing a novel is way more personal and revealing.
LONGER ANSWER: I've been asked this question a lot since "The Signature of All Things" was published in October. And I think people are always surprised by my answer. They (understandably) assume that the most vulnerable and exposing thing I ever wrote was "Eat Pray Love". They want to know how I could possibly have shared such intimate details about my life with the world, and they assume (again, understandably) that it was probably a relief for me to then write an unrevealing novel of pure invention — to hide my true self, as it is, behind fictional characters.
But here's the thing. My memoir is a very, very polished piece of sea glass. I didn't publish several volumes of my private diaries, after all, but offered up a well-considered compilation of stories about myself, all of them very carefully edited and selected. And there is a great self-consciousness to writing a memoir: You must be extremely careful about what you say not only about yourself, but also about other people. Also, as open and honest as I tried to be with EPL, the fact remains that perhaps I don't know myself as well as I think I do. (Who among us really knows ourselves?) I tried to be revealing, I tried to show you exactly who I am…but maybe I am not who I think I am? Certainly legions of other people see me differently than I see myself.
With a novel, on the other hand, the writer is lulled into this sense of safety and expansion and utter liberty (thinking, "This has absolutely nothing to do with me, so I can go in any direction I please!") and thus might very well accidentally reveal A LOT about herself. It is only now, more than a year after finishing "The Signature of All Things" that I realize how much of me is in there. Some of the most intimate details of my own deepest self (things I would never dream of sharing in a memoir are) are casually littered all over this novel — not only in the character of Alma, but in all the characters (all of whom, after all, spring from different parts of myself.)
Think of it like a crime scene. The memoirist, aware of being watched, goes over each page with white gloves and bleach, cleaning up every single bit of stray evidence. The novelist, joyfully oblivious, leaves a trail of hair and fingernails and footprints and bits of incriminating DNA all over her book.
All of which is to say, as I have realized only very lately, you'll probably learn more a lot more about me by reading "The Signature of All Things" than by reading "Eat Pray Love".
Crazy as it sounds. Crazy but true.
But there can be no art without revelation and vulnerability, my friends! To make art is inherently to reveal. We must reveal courageously, even when we do it accidentally…