When you write a novel, you need to air your innermost self. The writing needs to venture deep into the innermost depths of human experience, and to get there, you're your own best guide.
People get away with not knowing what's inside of them. It's hard to know your true self. But there's one surefire way to do it.
Get a room (the smaller the better) in a quiet hotel and open a notebook at the desk. Inside, write down whatever comes to mind.
I caught myself thinking, "Whoever wrote this should be reported and arrested."
Write from the understanding that you won't be showing this to anyone. This is key. When people know they need to show somebody, they obsess over how they'll be viewed and try to hide their real feelings. Just write whatever comes to you—the things you hate about yourself, your dreams, your desires, your darker side, anything—with no intention of sharing it. Hold nothing back. Don't worry if the grammar is a mess (because you won't be showing anyone).
There's something pleasing about releasing your innermost thoughts. You may even lose track of time and end up writing for hours. Long enough to see the clock and say, "Already?" and instead of stopping, make some coffee in the coffee maker and sit down, with a sigh, to read what you have written.
When you sit down, as the reader now, you may be shocked at what you find, and you may ask yourself, "What's up with this guy?" (even though it's you). In my case, I caught myself thinking, "Whoever wrote this should be reported and arrested."
Novels about the dark, unsettling, nasty things inside of us saved me in my adolescence.
But when we look deep inside, most of us are holding on to all kinds of things, and for the most part it's dark stuff and bad stuff. This is normal, and once you become aware of this part of you, you can learn to deal with people without getting riled up, and can handle the insecurities and weaknesses of others with sympathy. The people who think "I'm a good person. Not a bad bone in me"—they're the scary ones, the ones who can really do harm, because if you think you're perfect, you tend to blame everything on someone else.
I know I already said that there's a pleasure in releasing your innermost thoughts, but actually psychiatrists agree that it's cathartic to purge these feelings. So long as you're not a writer, you can close the notebook, and you're good to go.
But if you are, it's not that easy. You need to analyze what you've written, pick out the bits that came from deep inside of you, and convert them into objective prose. Having someone read your books is equivalent to having them read the inside of your head. If you shy from this idea, perhaps being a writer is not for you. When people ask me why my writing itself fixates on the depths of this interior world, my answer is simple: novels about the dark, unsettling, nasty things inside of us saved me in my adolescence.
I was convinced that on the inside I was hideous. A lot of the time it felt bad just to be alive.
My entire childhood was dark, but I survived by pretending, just on the outside, to be happy, because I didn't want to be bullied at school. I didn't like life or people, and I lacked a social impulse. I was convinced that on the inside I was hideous. A lot of the time it felt bad just to be alive. But when I discovered novels, I found a slew of people who were like me. It's almost too obvious to say, but I realized, "Hey, I'm not the only one who feels this way." I felt like my own darkness was redeemed, and I was thankful. I had thought I hated people, but it occurred to me that since novelists are people too, it was people who were saving me.
Novels are open to everyone. The reader can be a dismal person, or a bad person, or an outcast from society, but the novel will be open to them. Even if you have no money, you can read books at the library. A novel will never deny a reader. I can still remember going to the bookstore, right around puberty, and being awestruck at seeing all the books, as if for the first time. "I can't believe a world like this exists." There were all these books out there, and I could read them. Even someone like me could go on living. Gradually I opened myself up to people.
There were all these books out there, and I could read them. Even someone like me could go on living.
Several years ago, after I gave a talk at a middle school, the students surprised me and, one by one, read excerpts from my work. During my talk, they had seen my cheerful side, but now these students were reading from my actual novels: dark, brutal passages. For context, in parts of China, one of my novels is off-limits if you're under 18.
There weren't only students in the auditorium. Their teachers were there, even their parents and guardians. Listening to these excerpts, the crowd began to buzz.
"Is something wrong with him?"
"All this pain behind that smile?"
In that moment, I felt like my innermost self was on trial, for all to see.
But that's what it means to be a writer.
The English translation of Fuminori Nakamura's award-winning novel, The Boy in the Earth (Soho Press), is out today, $24, sohopress.com.