Bragg’s finch


There’s more to writing about yourself and your relations than brute honesty advocates such as Liz Jones would like to think. ‘Honesty’ isn’t really that awesome: devoutly repeating what you believe to be true is the quickest way of pulping your experience and turning it into paper, but it’s an unreflective sort of introspection. When we think about ourselves and other people, there are multiple mechanisms at work in our brains which tend to act against our telling the truth. Memory is corruptible. We find it hard to accept that we have behaved on ways that go against our beliefs (cognitive dissonance).  We find it easy to attribute positive characteristics to ourselves and negative ones to other people and situations (attribution bias). We are, basically, fucked when it comes to telling the truth.

Which is why fiction is so important. Fiction has a set of rules which let the author and reader separate out experiences, imagine different motivations, play sympathetically at being in situations we’ve never had. And making up stories is a much more powerful way of investigating yourself than embarking on a self-justifying soliloquy. On 6 March, about the same time that the Julie Myerson story was exploding, Melvyn Bragg did an interview with Simon Mayo about his latest work of autobiographical fiction. “The hero, is that you?” asked Simon.

He’s not me. He’s inspired by me, if that’s what you say, inspired by my life, based on the life of my first wife and our daughter and where we lived and what we did, very much so. But it’s not me. And I think there’s been a lot about Darwin going on recently, and everyone knows about Darwin’s finches – that he saw a finch, put very simply, on one island, and the next island along it was a bit different, and the next island a bit different, till in the end it was still the finch, but it wasn’t a finch at all, it was a different bird.

And I think that’s the same about writing autobiographical fiction, which I write. You start by thinking about something in yourself that you want to work through – that’s the finch. By the time you’ve started to write it and shape it and work it, it’s something else – and that’s the fiction. And that’s what I’m doing. There’s no denying that there’s an autobiographical strand to it, I would never dream of doing that, and I think that gives it strength. […] After all, this book is quite long, it’s 500 pages – but what’s 500 pages in 11 years? You select, you invent, there are lots of characters in the book who are totally made up, there are times when the wife concerned is alone – what do I do there? Conversations I can’t remember in the early 60s, of course I can’t. But I want to build up a tension between these two people.

Putting your experiences outside of yourself and into a fictional character is a way of making your own experience an object of study. It’s s0rt of rough control for bias: in fiction, the provisional relationship to reality allows some freedom from the usual crippling distortions, and this freedom lets the writer and the reader get to a more intimate and sympathetic understanding. The differences between the finch on the first island and the finch on the last tells you how the habitat shapes the species: you understand the bird by seeing how it’s been transformed.