Try this as an exercise. Please don’t overthink it — this isn’t psychoanalysis, just a small study into the way that writers (and other artists) interact with their imaginations.
Divide your life roughly into thirds. For example, it you’re 27 years old, then your life has three sections — 0 to 9, 9 to 18 and 18 to 27. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get an exact division, that’s not what this is about.
Take a look at the first third of your life and see if you can answer these questions — again, without too much introspection or assignation of significance:
Does the first third of your life start happily or not?
What then occurs — a downturn, an upswing or a stasis?
How does it end — happily, sadly, or neutrally?
In that first third, was there an older, supposedly wiser figure who acted as a mentor of some kind? There may have been more than one — and importantly, there may have been someone who could or should have taken on this role but, for whatever reason, did not do so fully or effectively.
Was there a comic friend? Someone who lifted your spirits or acted as a loyal companion?
Was there an opinion leader? Someone you looked up to and trusted? (This person may or may not have let you down over a period of time.)
Was there a friend, companion or colleague who seemed ‘submerged’ in their own woes for much of the time?
Was there a person similar to yourself, a kind of twin, but this person made different choices to you?
And finally, was there a ‘villain’ in this first third of your life?
Some of these roles may overlap; some may be indistinct. It doesn’t matter if you can’t pin these down or if things seem unclear.
Now do the same for the second third of your life, and then for the last third: answer the same questions and see if you can spot the same roles.
Then step back further: looking at your life as whole, does it start happily or not? How is it right now on a scale of happiness?
Overall, has there been an older, wiser mentor or not? How effective have they seemed?
Have there been comic friends throughout? Opinion leaders (whether they disappointed you or not)? ‘Submerged’ people?
Have there been people similar to yourself who made different choices to you?
Have there been ‘villains’?
The picture you might come up with is quite possibly messy and unclear. But you might be able to see patterns, and you will probably be able to see ‘curves’ — curves upward or curves downward, throughout these segments and overall.
These questions will help you to isolate your ‘life narrative’ — the pattern your life has taken, as far as the four simple ‘life positions’ are concerned. Those four positions, to reiterate, are:
‘I’m happy in a happy world’ = Epic
‘I’m happy in a neutral world’ = Comedy
‘I’m sad in a neutral world’ = Tragedy
‘I’m sad in a sad world’ = Irony
Like a well-structured story, it’s quite possible that you can see a three-act structure in the events of your life, each ‘act’ having its own ‘curve’ from happy to sad or vice versa. Of course, the division from where you are now into three is quite arbitrary — you may be in the middle of one of these ‘acts’ as you read this. It’s just an exercise.
As I’ve just reached the age of 60, this is all arithmetically easy for me. From 0 to 20, I can see a falling away from a relatively blissful childhood to adolescent alienation and despair; from 20 to 40 there’s a bit of an upcurve, but with plenty of drama and loss between; from 40 to 60 I can see a definite trend upwards, fortunately. In terms of the archetypal roles outlined above, I can see distinct mentors — some failing, some developing, some fading away. I can see loyal ‘comic companions’ and opinion leaders, as well as ‘submerged’ types — they appear, disappear and interact, like magic. The whole thing makes quite an elaborate saga, in fact.
Does any of this affect the writing of fiction?
I would argue that it does, to some degree. Writers who feel trapped by the narrative of their lives often seek escape through writing, as though storytelling will drive the confines of their lives away and enable them to ‘be understood’; writers who feel blessed by the story they feel they are living in often feel compelled, unconsciously, to relay that blessing through their tales.
Is it important? I think that if a writer has a firm understanding of his or her own life narrative, it might assist in understanding life as a whole and help them to ‘connect the dots’ as far as significance and meaning in fiction is concerned. It’s probably a good idea to lift any impulse which seems unconscious into the realms of rationality just in terms of mental health, but I also think it might help writers write better stories.
Many writers, after undertaking this exercise, feel suddenly energised: the material evident in their own lives has prompted several story ideas. Others feel liberated, as though they have told the story, or at least glimpsed the framework of the story, in which they have been ‘caught’ all their lives. A few reject the whole notion of there being any kind of pattern to their existence, and that’s fair enough too — as I said at the beginning, this isn’t psycho-analysis, just an attempt to better grasp the workings of the imagination in the world of art. Make of it what you will.
Further information — including a private consultancy based on this — is available for anyone who is interested.
More will follow.