Guest blogger, Catherine Kirkwood
People ask me about the inspiration for the characters in my first novel, Cut Away. I explain: it began with questions about an important idea, a fascination with the expansive opportunities to physically become, on the outside, what we experience ourselves to be on the inside. Were there profound differences between the acts of reconstructing the body in order to look twenty years younger and that of transforming a body born male into one that is female? My questions were about identity, what it is and whether it can be changed by altering the body; and if so, at what cost? These important questions conjured up the characters in my novel: a transgendered woman, a plastic surgeon, a mother and missing daughter. But an idea doesn’t tell a story.
If I sit down, shut up, and listen, these characters begin to tell their story. When I am writing I am simultaneously living inside my characters’ lives and allowing them to inhabit me. I begin to have the sense that it’s not just me waiting for them; they are waiting for me, to see if I will make the space—inside myself and on the page—that they can inhabit. If I am listening, sometimes one of them surprises me: does or says something unexpected. I trust this moment, write it down, because I know deep down it is exactly right, even though I don’t know why. If I construct the story with careful respect for these moments, they begin to happen more often. But if I stop listening, become overzealous, and force the writing toward my own, predetermined aims, these moments become less frequent; the writing goes lifeless or stalls completely.
On the surface, the characters I write are very different from me: a transgendered woman lives on the edge of the Salton Sea, a plastic surgeon wonders if she’s still at the top of her game, and a mother is torn mad by the disappearance of a teenage daughter she stole at birth and raised as her own. Sometimes this presents serious dilemmas. How can I presume to speak the experience of those so different from me? This seems especially true in writing the experience of someone who belongs to a group so marginalized, so silenced, that those who might tell their true stories are seldom given forum to speak. What right do I, a non-transgendered woman, have to tell Alexandra’s story? Yet when I began to let Alexandra inhabit me, listening carefully to her voice and respecting what she said, she became so essential to my process of writing Cut Away, it became impossible to tell the story without her. Ultimately it became her story. And in the process of writing it, of tangling myself in the quandaries of identity, I found I walked a tightrope between being true to my writing—true to the character Alexandra—and respectful of the context of pervasive silence into which her presence speaks. Betraying one truth would so easily, so completely, betray the other.
Walking this tightrope is a good definition for the process of writing fiction. When we write fiction not only do we imagine what it’s like to be someone else, we also step across a kind of no-man’s land—the space that normally separates us from others and delimits who we think we are—into the lives of our imagined characters. Our fictional characters are imagined, first by the writer and then by the reader. They are not ‘real’ in the same way that people described in non-fiction are. There is no a boundary of self we bump up against. They are more permeable, more open to inhabitation. When we listen to them, inhabit them and allow them to inhabit us, they teach us something very important. How often in a lifetime do we get to walk this yawning gap? Dreams. Birth. Death. And I believe, fiction.
Catherine Kirkwood holds an MFA from Goddard College, a PhD in Women’s Studies from the University of York, England, and a BS in psychobiology. Her work has appeared in fiction anthologies and her acclaimed feminist work, Leaving Abusive Partners, has been translated and sold internationally. Cut Away is her first novel (Arktoi Books 2010). Visit Catherine at CatherineKirkwood.net
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