The Redistribution of Autobiography
“Science and philosophy talk about the outer world or about man but always about things in general, in principle, in the idea. Art does not see things in such a way; it sees them as they are - material. Art does not talk about man in general; it always deals with a determined man, with Oliver Twist, Eugene Onegin, Fyodor Karamazov. The limetree the poet mentions is not the tree which the botanists discuss; it is a scented, shady tree in the poet's garden under which he dreamed his boyish dreams.”
-'Alija 'Ali Izetbegovic, Islam Between the East and the West
Have you ever heard of BIONICLE?
Most people haven’t. It’s a now-defunct LEGO franchise that ran from 2001 to 2010, and for a long time was the company’s most popular original product. Certainly the action figures, with their sleek designs and specialized plastic pieces, tickled many a child’s imagination. But while the toys were great, it was the story that came attached to them, told through a LEGO-coordinated multimedia campaign comprised of movies, comics, and novels, which really riveted me. It was a bizarre story about biomechanical beings fighting an ancient force of evil on a tropical island, marrying Polynesian imagery to Western narrative conventions. Was the convoluted, meticulously planned plot overkill for a story that basically functioned as glorified advertising for a franchise of plastic toys? Probably, but that’s what made it great—great enough to be the subject of my childhood (and, I confess, sometimes adulthood) obsession.
Today, my love for BIONICLE’s brilliantly unhinged mix of fantasy and science-fiction most directly manifests itself in the novel series I have been working on with a close friend since 10th grade. BIONICLE isn't the only influence; the magnificent City of Ember novels and the haunting The Giver have both contributed some of their spirit (and in some cases, I admit, particular plot points).
Our book series, planned to span eight novels, follows the adventure of a mole-like creature (the species are called Talpida) named Fossor (Latin for ‘digger,’ because 10th-grade-me thought Latin was cool and maybe profound) who lives in the communist utopia-dystopia called “The Colony.” I wrote the first book in 10th grade (roughly 400 pages), the second book in 11th grade (roughly 800 pages), and have been stuck on the third since 12th grade. I’ve spent most of my undergraduate career rewriting the first book, because to the surprise of nobody but myself, my high school writing really didn’t age well. The book series, aside from being a fun mystery-adventure thriller, also had the loftier ambitions of saying something original about the relationship of the individual to the community—a rather pretentious manifestation of an introverted 15-year-old child’s alienation from his oppressively extroverted Egyptian community.
But then, that’s to be expected. Deb Margolin thinks that “fiction is the redistribution of autobiography,” and I agree. Fiction is really just confession by other means: for political beliefs, childhood traumas, unspeakable fantasies, obnoxious quirks, naïve ideals, even hidden prejudices. This is good. Writing must embody the writer entirely. Writing devoid of its writer is not writing.
Only the writer’s solitary vantage point can imbue his work with the individuality that makes it inimitable. That nebulous magic, that indefinable “something” that a writer’s humanity brings to the paper, isn’t just what makes a work work, but is what makes it matter. As calculated an enterprise as fiction-writing can appear to be, what with the excruciatingly careful attention that must be paid to word choice, setting, character, plot, and theme, it is ultimately the antithesis of mechanical production. The writer’s absence will only result in a work as cold as the desk (or laptop) on which his work was written. Only when the author has the courage to insert himself into his writing, in all his particular weirdness, does he create something with enough definition, with enough form, with enough meaning, to attain mass appeal. The work must be particular to the author if the reader is to particularize it to themselves. Universalism emerges naturally from particularism. Indeed, universalism can only emerge particularism.
Paradoxically, though, such particularity can only be achieved so long as the author is not seen. His work must both expose and conceal him.
To elaborate: I am an authoritarian writer. I impose my will on the story. When it naturally evolves and goes to different places I let it carry me, and my ideas may change as I create it, but ultimately the pen is deployed and the words herded back to their cages, where they are expected to perform their assigned tasks. My task as a writer, then, is to hide the reality of my dictatorship. The reader must fail to detect the traces of my tools on the smoothened edges of every letter. My writing must enable the reader to know me, and yet it cannot allow him to see me.
Achieving that balance is the challenge. How do you purge the writer from a work that must fully embody him?