You may remember last week I posted about the stack of books I had received for my birthday and Mad World was amongst them. I started reading it a couple of weeks ago and although it’s very well written and researched, it can get very bogged down in detail as so many biographies tend to, however it’s still an interesting read. Mad World shows how much Waugh used his life at Oxford and his friendship with the aristocratic Lygon family as direct inspiration for Brideshead Revisited, possibly his most famous novel. Sebastian Flyte was based on Hugh Lygon, Anthony Blanche was modelled on Brian Howard, and even the scene where Sebastian vomits into the ground floor rooms of Charles Ryder was a fictionalised version of an episode that happened to Waugh himself at Oxford.
Writers like Augusten Burroughs, David Sedaris and Candace Bushnell have more obviously mined their life experience for their writing but using one’s life as a basis for one’s work can be seen throughout literature. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned was largely inspired by Fitzgerald’s relationship with his wife Zelda. Ulysses is set on 16th June, a significant date in Joyce’s life as it was the date of his first outing with Nora Barnacle, the woman who would become his wife. Siri Hustvedt used New York City club kids and a murder case as an element in her book What I Loved – interesting given that her step-son Daniel Auster had some involvement with the Michael Alig murder case. Arthur Miller used his relationship with Marilyn Monroe as the inspiration for his play After The Fall. There are tons of examples I can think of and I’m sure you can too.
I guess it’s inevitable that a writer looks to their own life for subject matter. Having written two novels, I can say that both have been inspired by my own experience. My first novel is about a singer and I was a singer for many years. My second book’s central theme is about mothers leaving their children, something that has happened throughout the maternal side of my family for generations. However while my life experience has been a jumping off point for my work, that’s as far as it goes.
There is a difference between using one’s life as a “what if” question for a book and using one’s writing as a form of therapy for one’s issues. Margaret Atwood addressed this in the documentary that I posted about last year. She believes that fiction is a craft and one is always trying to improve one’s technique and ability with each book. She does not work out her personal demons through writing as she believes that makes it therapy not creativity. I completely agree with her. Writing at its best has to have a strong element of imagination to make it transcend real life and become something even better.