One of the best ways to answer this fascinating question is to read great writers writing about other great writers and thus describing the creative act. In historical novels written about great writers, we have two writers engaged in the creative act: the writer who is the subject of the study and the author him- or herself. In the difference between the two actors here—the author of the book and the author who is the character in the book—we can learn a great deal about the creative process.
Why, for example, does John Coetzee, in The Master of Petersburg, have Dostoevsky mourn the death of his step-son Pavel Isaev when this young man, in reality, is very much alive during Dostoevsky’s life? Why is much of this book written like a mystery story, an exploration of this young man’s death? Was he murdered? Was he assassinated by some dark revolutionary force, or did he kill himself? Is John Coetzee connecting his own life, the loss of his son, South Africa, and the forces at work in that time and place, to Pavel Isaev and the background of budding revolution in Russia in the 1870’s? Here in the differences and similarities between fact and fiction we see the mind of the author at work, using his own life, perhaps, and his imagination, and fusing these two to create something quite new and different.
In another excellent example of a writer writing about a writer we have Penelope Fitzgerald’s Blue Flower with the story of a love affair: the poet-to-be, young Felix von Hardenburg, known as Novalis, who falls in love with Sophie von Kuhn, who is twelve years old. Sophie dies at fifteen and Felix is left to mourn and write his poetry inspired by this early death. Penelope Fitzgerald uses this drama to say something about how poems come into being—through the loss of a loved one, through a romantic and impossible love affair set in a real world of impoverished aristocracy in Saxony in the eighteen century, a world she herself knows, belonging as she does to an aristocracy of the mind, as well as the lack of funds brought on by her husband’s drunkenness and destitution. Thus again we have this fusion of reality and fiction and that ingredient impossible to describe: the spark of a great mind.
In a third and perhaps best example we have Colm Toibin’s The Master. Here we have the mind of Henry James brilliantly portrayed with much empathy and understanding. We see him with his inability to connect with others (one of the characters calls him a banker collecting our bank notes to store up in his brain), his longings, and his recollections. Each scene depicts the “master” looking, remembering, and recording. Each moment seems to lead to this fusion between present, past, and imagination. Thus the sight of a little girl alone on a lawn provokes a moment of recollection of Henry himself alone as a child with only his sister, Alice James, at his side, and this fusion of present and past brings James to create the story “The Turn of the Screw,” with its two lonely children watched over by their strange governess.
Colm Toibin, an Irishman and a gay man, is naturally particularly sensitive to James’s Irish ancestry, and the chapter on James’s visit to Ireland after the failure of his play is one of the most successful, told with humor and telling details and with the snobbish English portrayed with considerable veracity. Toibin also conveys poignantly all the way through the book the underground longing and lusting of a man who does not ever dare to declare or even seem to admit to himself his homosexuality.
We might think that any reality we use in fiction is always seen through the prism of the writer’s life, but in these cases we have the two lives which are both known to us: the writer (Coetzee, Fitzgerald, and Toibin) and their characters (Dostoevsky, Novalis, and Henry James). In all three of these books we have a clear demonstration of how the writer explores certain facts and makes them his or her own, as much as we can ever own the facts of a life of another. These “truths” speak particularly to them, echoing the “truths” of their own lives. They transform them, sometimes staying close and sometimes taking great leaps and liberties, but always recreating this reality anew, seen through the prism of their creative minds and brought to us in their own distinctive voices.
Sheila Kohler is the author of ten novels, three volumes of short fiction, and many essays. Her most recent book is the memoir Once We Were Sisters (Penguin, 2017). Her stories have appeared three times in The Best American Short Stories and twice in The O. Henry Prize Stories. Her novel Cracks was made into a film with directors Jordan and Ridley Scott, with Eva Green playing Miss G. She blogs at Psychology Today under “Dreaming for Freud.” A version of her essay “In a Woman’s Kingdom” (AGNI 82) will appear in her memoir, I Will Take it to the Grave, just sold to Penguin. (updated 1/2019)