Backstory. It’s what’s happened to your character, your family, your country or your galactic empire before the story starts. How did you get to that desert planet and learn to fly dragons? Writing fiction, you figure how to bring it in as it’s relevant without clotting it into one big dump.
Most mornings, the first whiff of dawn awakens my farmers’ genes, I grapple for my sleep mask and launch some idiot dream. Other times, the brain worries some task, an insight or paranoid vision, like a cat ragging the mouse that won’t die.
Last week, working on the end of the 8th draft of a novel that few will want to read, I began early dawn to torment my own backstory. It’s a common question at readings: how much of the novelist’s life is contained in his characters? That same question might be put to the writers of memoir.
I won’t go into my own life story here. That’s mostly contained in our 2010 memoir CO-CREATION. That book’s as honest as we could be, and yet it could be deconstructed in terms of its serving our psychosocial self-images as individuals and as couple. The story of a life is a story. We construct the story we tell about ourselves and the story we believe. Sometimes the two are the same, but even recounting every incident in merciless detail, we’re still selecting the incidents that define us.
Not to suggest that our own backstory is false or that it should be abandoned—that’s best determined in consultation with therapists or lovers—but only that we be aware of what’s there and what’s not; how our chapters might otherwise divide; what functions or disfunctions it serves. It may be grossly self-congratulatory or hideously shameful, but we tell it and tell it and tell it, and we keep on living it because it serves a purpose. It keeps the illusional entity known as Me alive.
The celebrity memoir has a more predictable form. Surviving the traumatic or idyllic childhood; early inspiration; success; the inevitable crash from depression, intoxicants, ego flatulence or anything else offering struggle; and finally rebounding thanks to God, meeting Sal or Sally, yoga or Vitamin C. Not that these stories are false, only that they’re stories. They’re as “constructed” as a novel, with an intent—conscious or unconscious—of bringing about a result: being beloved or elected or rich, or a genuine desire to inspire—many options.
In the political spectrum, stories have enormous power. They can cure cancer, induce genocide, launch armies, drop the bomb, free the slaves, send a man to the moon or eviscerate Planet Earth. Guns kill people, people kill people, but the story pulls the trigger. The real weapons are the stories. It’s the stories we kill with, and they swarm like roaches.
So what’s the backstory I tell of myself? What purpose does it serve? Why does it cling to my face? I live it daily, though I’m only beginning to know it. Perhaps by the time I’m eighty.