MIDWAY: That missing year
Very soon, I’m going to go missing for a year. No one will be able to find me. And I will never reveal what I was up to for those 12 months. Maybe I’ll suffer amnesia and not even
be able to remember what I did. Students and critics can scour everything I write afterwards for clues, convinced the events of the missing year will somewhere reveal themselves in my writing. What was he up to? Having a secret affair with Prince Harry? Drug-running in Afghanistan? After all, all fiction is thinly disguised autobiography, right?
Every writer has a missing year. It’s a golden rule. A few examples: the great mystery writer, Agatha Christie, disappeared in the middle of her writing career. What she got up to is an unsolved riddle. She may have had marital problems; she may have been depressed; she may have had writer’s block.
And take the greatest of them all: Shakespeare. There are records of his schooling in Stratford, but he is then unheard-of for several years, before appearing as an aspiring playwright in London. No one knows what he did in between: speculation runs the gamut from poacher to soldier, merchant to fugitive.
Of course, all writing is autobiographical to a certain extent. What’s more interesting is spotting where writers, in their fiction, actually change the reality that’s around them. Take Ibsen’s classic drama, A Doll’s House. The central character Nora comes to realise that her marriage is based on lies, and leaves her husband to begin a new, independent life. Ibsen was drawing on the experiences of a female acquaintance. But in life, when the acquaintance sought Ibsen’s advice, he told her to go back to her husband.
As a playwright, Ibsen has been labelled a proto-feminist; as a man, his actions seem more paradoxical. In fiction, he gives his female character the strength and freedom she was denied in life. He also invents a death for the family friend Doctor Rank, who acts as the family confidante that Ibsen was in life. Doctor Rank is suffering from a terminal illness and hides himself away to die. Was this Ibsen’s way of punishing himself for his lack of support? Whatever the reason, it is the differences from reality, rather than the parallels with it, that make a work of fiction fascinating.