Writing From the Inside Out by Bernard Beck
Writing From the Inside Out
Bernard Beck, author of One American Dream
It all started when I tried to write about my mother. She was an “alternative” person and I wanted my children to know about her. Of course, they knew her, but by then she was “Grandma” and no longer the firebrand that she had been when she was younger.
It was to be a kind of biography, and I included all of my memories as well as many of the anecdotes that my aunts and uncles had told me. I shaped it together into a coherent story – not chronological, but focused instead on her unique personality. It took me two years, and I was very proud of it.
My wife asked me to read it to her after I had finished it. That was the moment that I realized that I had not written a biography at all – I had written, instead, a book filled with random reminiscences, and my own teenage angst. It was hard for me to read aloud without becoming intensely emotional because it was more about me, and my ambivalent relationship with her, than about her actual biography.
So I decided to rewrite it, taking an arm's length attitude.
This was much more successful, but it raised questions of motivation. Why, I asked myself, had she become such an alternative person?
I didn't know the answer, and all of her contemporaries, the people I could have asked, had long since passed away. So, I was left with “a character in search of an author.” And I, as a last resort, had to be that author.
I tried to imagine what her parents had been like, and what the environment was in which she had developed her unique personality. I did a lot of research and formed a pretty good idea of how things were in their time; but then something strange happened: Her father took over my story. After all, he was the one who pushed her and encouraged her, and he was the one who accepted her unique ambitions and insecurities.
But then I thought, how did he get to be that way? And what was life like for him with an “alternative” daughter? His contemporaries must have been shocked by her behavior and by his acceptance, and even encouragement of it. So, I had to give him a back story as well.
And the same applied to my Grandmother.
By now the back stories of my Grandparents dominated the book. It had become a story about them with my mother as a product of their unique relationship. This seemed OK to me until I realized that the story had no resolution – no way to bring it up to date. So, I tried to imagine what my mother was like before I was born, and how maternity and marriage had changed her.
I guess I could have written, at this point, about my father, but that would have opened another whole can of worms, so I created a lover and a husband.
And now I had a novel.
I sent it off, as I had written it, to the publisher, and they liked it! Except for one very painful thing. They recognized that this novel I had written was really, intensely biographical, and they encouraged me to rewrite the book in the first person. I must admit that rewriting the book in the first person improved it immensely, but it was very painful for me because it brought me back, full circle, to the biography that I had written about my mother so many years earlier.
I still get emotional when I read it even though I know that nearly all the content is fiction. I see her in my mind's eye, challenging me to abandon my middle-class life and to allow my intensely controlled spirit to soar.
Maybe, just maybe, I have done it. I wonder if she would approve.