At a recent booksigning, the subject came up concerning how authors put themselves into their work. It was a multi-author booksigning, and I was paired up with another, local author, a poet, whose writing is autobiographical in nature. When it came my turn to read a bit of my work, I stood up and stated that while an author cannot avoid putting himself into his work, my stories were of a different nature from my fellow author's poetry, because mine were in no way autobiographical. A member of our audience asked how I do put myself into my work. My answer was somewhat terse. "As little as possible," I said at the time, and elaborated very little, adding only that I am somewhat shy. That is an unsatisfactory and inaccurate answer.
I realized this the same evening and have been meaning to rectify and clarify the poor excuse for an answer I gave at the time. Here is my attempt.
What can one put of one's self into one's work? One can tell one's own story, of course, and many do. One's own story can be told in numerous ways and to varying degrees of honesty and accuracy. It can be blatant or disguised, factual or embroidered.
But one can avoid that all together, if one so desires, and put nothing of one's own story into one's work. After all, there are other people's stories to be told as well. Many writers do tell other people's stories as well as or in lieu of their own. But it is very difficult for a writer to avoid putting himself into his work. Unlike my fellow author at the booksigning, I prefer not to put autobiographical details into my stories. I am not repudiating her preference. There's nothing wrong with being autobiographical. It is harder to avoid, however, and I do not attempt to avoid, putting my ideas about right and wrong into my stories. An author's world view is the thing he almost cannot avoid putting into his work. It creeps into his language, chooses his adjectives for him, directs his focus. It can be disguised, of course, or one can tell another's story, and even then, one is likely to find it difficult not to tell another's story in one's own words and style.
The lady's question still requires more answer. What of myself do I put into my writing? As I have stated, I put in my world view, my ideas of right and wrong, but I keep out personal details about me. And here is an example. On this webiste, I have a story, Gilbames the Unwise. I must warn you, that the following comments may spoil the story, so feel free to read it first if you haven't before. It is on this website under the heading, Free Stories.
Gilbames the Unwise is a story of adventure, heroism, magic, and romance. So naturally, I put into it my ideas of what constitutes adventure, wisdom, heroism, magic, and romance. Many of these ideas are, admittedly, stock ideas in our culture. Everybody has some idea, largely similar to that of everyone else's about what an adventure is, what makes a hero, and so forth. I have my own ideas, though, and they are present.
The setting and situation I present to the reader in Gilbames the Unwise are grim. The protagonist, Gallantine, is in a harsh climate, a desert. He has not enough water for himself or his companion, Mina, whome he loves and who is already close to death from drinking tainted water. From the first I portray Gallantine (it is no coincidence that his resembles the word "gallant.") as a hero. He comforts Mina. He seeks every way he can imagine to save her in the time available, yet he keeps his mind on his duty, to slay the Great Troll and purify the Deep Waters. He knows that in the process of this, he and his love may die, but he and she are set on the course of action and are willing to sacrifice themselves to complete it. There you have it, a hero is one who braves danger on behalf of others, one who dedicates himself to a cause and sees it through no matter the cost to himself. He has a strong sense of right and wrong and the courage and ability to attempt to make things right.
In the course of the story, Gallantine faces his own death fighting the Great Troll, accepts it, and tries to use his own death to defeat the Troll. Only the intervention of Gilbames saves him. Gilbames is similar to Gallantine in that he has courage and ability, but different in his sense of right and wrong. Where Gallantine faces danger on behalf of others, Gilbames does so for his own glory. By contrasting the two "heroes," the reader can take from my story that I think there is no room in a hero for self-aggrandizement. Call me narrow-minded, if it pleases you. Gilbames is a glory hound, He does some good in seeking his own glory, after all, he heals both Gallantine and Mina with the Aviberry potion, but in a careless manner, indicating clearly that he is not concerned with the greater good or with how the consequences of his actions affect others. Indeed, he is the one responsible for the grim situation at the beginning of the story, having tossed the Great Troll into the well in the first place. Because of Gilbames's carelessness, Gallantine is forced into situations where he must be willing to die for the greater good twice in the same day, and it is only due to Gilbames's arrogance that he survives the second time.
There are, of course, elements in stories that may fool the reader into believing that the author holds to ideals to which he does not actually hold. For instance, an environmentalist might take from Gilbames the Unwise the idea that it is an ecological, morality play. Gilbames contributed to the polluting of the Deep Waters and Gallantine had to purify them. At the end of the story the world is better because there is clean water to be had again. Hence, Robert J. Krog must be an environmentalist at heart. Well, not so much. I'm no advocate of polluting or killing off entire species of animals in the pursuit of wealth, and sure, I want clean air to breath and clean water to drink, but I don't buy into Man-made Global Warming. I think it's nonsense. As a historian, however, I am well aware of instances when people pursued a goal in way that was contrary to their own well-being. The island of Cyprus was once deforested to make ships, which brought Cypriote commercial ambition to ruin in the long run. It had other negative effects as well. Deforestation usually does: erosion, a lack of firewood and building materials, lack of habitat for forest animals, etc. Easter Island was deforested once as well. People have and will again do stupid things to the world around them and thus hurt themselves.
But this results from a lack of virtue. It comes from treating God's creation as a means to satisfy one's own desires, as opposed to using God's bounty to care for our fellow human beings. If one follows the commandment to "love one another," one will inevitably care for the world around oneself. It's a matter of focus. If one truly care about other people, caring for God's creation will naturally follow. You won't read Gilbames the Unwise and discover in it any direct or even indirect way that I am Catholic. Tha'ts fine, but please don't take from Gilbames the Unwise that I am an environmentalist.
That I am not is there in the text, subtly. At no point in the story are Gallantine and Mina concerned about the land in any abstract way. They don't consider the land or the creatures on it to have rights. They are concerned about the people and the effect of the corrupted Deep Waters on the people. The people come first.
There's more to my world-view than that. The story barely touches on God and then only in the form of the "Sky-Father" who is not God, but is worshipped as a god. But the "Sky-Father" does seem to recognize Gallantine's righteousness and Gilbamese's folly. If you take anything from my stories and apply it to me, I hope it is this, that I believe love of one's fellow human beings is the way to wisdom, that to love is to give of one's self without thought for one's self, and that there is no wisdom in the absence of love.