Montreal-based Guillaume Morissette is the author of two great novels, which each draw more-or-less heavily on his own biography. More and less, to be specific: While New Tab, his rightfully-acclaimed debut, navigated Montreal, awkward romance, transitional roommates, and an increasingly atomized digital society in a way that lined up quite neatly with his own experiences, his second work, The Original Face, explores modern love, contemporary art and the gig economy with greater detours into outright invention. In what follows, Morissette outlines his delineation of the personal and the fictional, and offers us a humble guide on how best to work our own experiences into a novel.
About a year and a half ago, I hosted the Montreal launch of writer Chloe Caldwell’s essay collection I’ll Tell You In Person. During the Q&A, I asked Chloe a question everyone asks her all the time, which is, You write about real life. Are you worried at all about people around you being mad at you? Her response was quick, deadpan, funny and dismissive: “It’s just a book.” As someone who also draws from real life to write, I thought her approach was refreshing and down to earth, but I couldn’t get myself to fully embrace it, even though I knew my own book was also “just a book.” Writers overestimate the number of readers they actually reach all the time, but maybe it’s only “just a book” until you write something someone else would prefer to suppress.
My first novel, New Tab, was “semi-autobiographical,” meaning it includes rough sketches of roommates, co-workers, romantic interests and generic party friends from that period of my life, combined with some made-up dialogue, imaginary events and ideas. My goal wasn’t to write a memoir, but just a book I would want to read myself, one that would capture the Montreal I knew, which at the time didn’t seem to be represented in book form in any way. To tell a better story, I allowed myself to play with the plot, dialogue and timeline of events. In the end, the story the book tells is fictional, but the emotions on which it’s based are real.
This approach isn’t particularly new or groundbreaking (In Japan, for example, there’s a literary sub-genre called “shishosetsu”, or “I-novel”, which designates a psychologically realistic “personal novel” in which events in the book roughly correspond to the author’s life), and it can be a double-edged sword. Reality, in the right dose, can supercharge your writing, but it also comes at a cost. The big one, obviously, is the possibility of upsetting people around you and demolishing personal relationships. Beyond that, drawing heavily from your own experiences also usually means having to work within the boundaries of your life and only being able to discuss topics that relate to it. In my case, it means my protagonists are always, by default, sad lonely heterosexual white men.
When I started working on my second novel, The Original Face, I was still interested in using my writing to answer the question, “What is happening right now?” , but at the same time, nothing seemed more boring to me than writing about being a writer, so I made the conscious decision to continue drawing from real life, but also move a little further away from myself by introducing more elements that had nothing to do with my life. Over time, the protagonist of The Original Face became an internet artist working freelance, which allowed me to draw from my experiences working freelance while also tackling topics I wouldn’t have been able to bring up otherwise, like glitch art.
Because Original Face was more removed from me than my first novel, I thought other people would see it the same way I did, as very obviously a novel, one that was still reality-adjacent in some way but had shed the “semi-autobiographical” label. I didn’t think anyone would see this book as a threat, so I was surprised to receive, a few months before the official publication date, a negative email from a person objecting to the book because it contained elements that we’re both “true” and “not true.” In the end, I did what I could to address this person’s concerns prior to publication, but it’s clear that publishing this book had some negative consequences for me, even though I still prefer having written it than not.
If you, like me, would like to dynamite your personal life by using it as fodder for a novel, here’s some general advice:
Start with what you already have
My process for writing novels so far has been 50% intuitive and 50% trial and error. When I first started New Tab, I felt like the tools I had developed as a writer up to that point (to write short stories, mainly) were suddenly insufficient. At a very basic level, working on a novel meant I had so much more space to fill, so many more words to write. Going into the book, I had no plan, no outline and no methodology, but I did have a few things going for me: 1) A short story that had been widely panned and rejected by a writing workshop, which I knew could be good but needed to be re-written from scratch (and eventually became the beginning of New Tab), 2) An unpublished nonfiction piece that I thought I might be able to rework and integrate later on into the novel, 3) Some notes I had taken about a big fight my ex-roommates and I had had, 4) Facebook chats with friends, which I could draw inspiration from for dialogue and 5) The ability to spend an infinite amount of time alone. I wasn’t sure how I was going to tie all those different elements together, but I knew they shared emotional connective tissue, and so merging these pieces became an interesting problem to solve. Beyond that, I didn’t know what I was really writing about, what my narrator wanted, which characters were going to be important and which weren’t, but I knew that the nonfiction piece would have to appear around the middle of the book, which gave me a general direction, like finding your way by following a star in the sky.
Look for patterns
The rest of the writing process was discovery. When you write a novel, you give it sustained mental attention for a long of period of time, so it’s normal to discover things as you go. One character says something in a scene and then later you realize you can re-use a variation of the same thing in another scene and then it becomes a sort of low-key running gag throughout the book. You didn’t plan for this, but the pieces all fell into place nicely, almost of their own volition. Writing a novel is writing a succession of sentences, but it also involves, at least for me, looking for patterns within them.
Be careful with wish fulfillment
If you’re planning on fictionalizing your life, one issue you might run into is the temptation of writing what you wish would have happened, as opposed to what actually happened. Sometimes it’s okay to cheat a little, like, what if you could go back in time and use that devastating comeback you didn’t think of on the spot, but came up with only six hours later, when the moment had passed? Maybe that devastating comeback shouldn’t be wasted, maybe it deserves to go in when you fictionalize this experience. While it’s okay, in the context of a text presented as fiction, to exaggerate or embellish certain things a little for the sake of telling a better story, I still recommend being careful with wish fulfillment and feelings of revenge. (For a good example of what can go wrong with wish fulfillments and revenge, I recommend this essay by André Alexis, which involves two bad novels, a negative review, and a slap that never happened in real life.)
Use revenge as motivation instead
Inflated egos are everywhere in the writing world. It’s very easy to confuse writing books (or writing about books) with being some sort of intellectual demigod, so in your writing journey, you’re likely to encounter people who will be mad at you for getting attention instead of them, or some other perceived slight. Luckily, one thing anime series have taught us is that having a nemesis can push you to reach greater heights, and so rejection or being shit-talked can be a positive source of motivation, making you want to work harder to prove your haters wrong. As a whole, part of the fun (and agony) of literature is constantly having to re-prove yourself. Zen master Taisen Deshimaru said, “Most people do not like criticism. But they should. They should say thank you.” A bad review, someone shit-talking you or even a rejection from a literary journal you like can be good for your ego and even function as a kind of antidote to the constant, nonstop validation we get from social media. Sometimes rejection only delays gratification.
Be a pro
I stole this advice (“Be a pro”) from Sheila Heti, who got it from English painter David Hockney. Writing is probably the easiest thing to not do, and spending an afternoon describing a cowboy eating beans can seem like a bad use of your time when it’s sunny outside and people are texting you to come hang out, so it’s probably no surprise that a major dilemma for writers is simply deciding how to spend their time. You need to live in order to have something to write about, but sometimes getting some writing done means not going out. So ,should I go out tonight or should I stay in and write? The only solution I’ve found to this problem is to “be a pro” by taking writing and my writing practice seriously, harnessing the power of seclusion and socializing only as a reward for getting some stuff done.
Accept the contradictions
Writing a manuscript takes time, but meanwhile, you have to eat, pay rent, go out, buy clothes, party, etc, so how do you write a novel when you have a full-time office job, plus a life on top of that? There’s no perfect solution to this problem, but the good news is that you can never make your novel “worse.” If you only have one afternoon per week to write and it takes you 5 hours to write 3 decent paragraphs, you’re still 3 paragraphs closer to being “done.” My only advice on this topic would be, if you can, reduce your needs, appreciate the imperfect, practice failure, and try to enjoy simplicity.
Tell the truth
The writer Richard Yates used to advise his writing students to “tell the truth,” which you can interpret in different ways, but for me generally means being sensitive and brave. Real life gifts us with cool stories all the time (although they sometimes need editing), and one of the most radical things we can do is simply to tell them. Thai meditation master Ajahn Chah said, “You are your own teacher. Investigate yourself to find the truth – inside, not outside.” To “tell the truth,” I recommend spelunking down the cave of your feelings and memories, going deeper and deeper inside yourself. If a scene isn’t working, try going for a walk and talking to yourself in public, which kind of feels like free therapy, a little brainstorm with yourself. If you’re still stuck, reflect on the following Zen Koan: “Who is it that does this work?” Who is it that’s writing this novel? Who is it that’s writing this text?
Allow yourself to write shitty
Sometimes I feel scared to write. More precisely, I feel scared of sitting in front of my laptop and realizing that for whatever reason, I feel completely uninspired that day and can only write dumb, basic, lifeless sentences, which automatically causes my brain to view itself as “broken,” makes me feel like a fraud and triggers an existential crisis in which I start fantasizing about retiring from writing altogether and then disappearing from public life, living the rest of my days as a passive consumer, one of those generic humans you see at the mall or in coffee shops all the time. For Original Face, I was aware of this pattern and decided that I should try doing the opposite by pushing myself to write terribly instead of making excuses and walking away from the keyboard. If I wasn’t sure where a scene should go next, I would write something like, “He enters the bar. The barman looks at him weird. Insert witty dialog here,” and sometimes this was enough to get me unstuck. Having a shitty first draft is usually preferable to having no writing at all on the page, because the shitty first draft can at least be conceivably improved.
Re-read your own sentences until you feel physically unable to modify them
Entering the final stretch of working on The Original Face, I felt like I could no longer tell if I thought the words in front of me were “good” or “bad.” It was like a kind of artistic myopia: I was so used to re-reading the same passages over and over again and the same words in the same order that any other configuration seemed bizarre and off-putting to me, like having a lobster as a pet. Was this book any good? Would it make sense to anyone other than me? I seriously had no idea. I am a compulsive re-reader who’ll voluntarily re-read the same passages a million times looking for potential “improvements,” which can mean different things depending on how I am feeling that day. As a result, both my novels are on the short side and nervous, because writing 100,000 words this way would probably kill me.
Enjoy the writing process, even though it’s hell
There’s a law in software design that says that a system will always reflect the conditions in which it was created. For example, imagine a team of programmers working on a video game together. If the programmers all hate each other and rarely talk to one another, it will impact the final product in some way, like maybe the game will ship with a high number of bugs or maybe someone who had a bright idea for a cool new feature never shares it with the rest of the team. A novel works the same way. Books are incredibly sensitive, so the conditions in which you write your novel will impact your book in some way. For that reason, feeling while writing is important. Don’t just sit there, don’t be numb staring at your computer screen. Make yourself laugh. Enjoy your problems. Be insane.