The story of her life - or maybe just a story

A novelist meditates on her past and the act of writing

Why do writers write? Is it because life thrusts certain difficult (or wonderful) circumstances upon them and they have no choice but to make creative use of that material? Or is it rather that they will seize upon whatever it is that comes their way?

It's a natural question to ask while reading Lynn Freed's Reading, Writing, and Leaving Home: Life on the Page. Freed has written a book about her life and the creative process. It is a work that is simultaneously funny, angry, touching, and perceptive.

It's a book, however, that defies categorization. It's a memoir, but it's also a meditation on the act of writing. And at the same time - one has to ask - might it not really be a piece of fiction?

Freed is a novelist (her previous books include "Home Ground" and "The Bungalow") and short story writer. Her childhood in South Africa figures largely in almost all her works, and in fact many of her readers have assumed that much of what she writes is really autobiographical.

So those who have enjoyed her previous works may be eager for this glimpse into her past. But proceed with caution, Freed signals to us from the outset.

With the bracing candor that permeates the book, she reminds us that writing can also be a form of revenge, a means of playing God, or a way to reorder existence.

So when she writes - with what appears to be brutal honesty - of her parents, South Africa, her ex-husband, her not-so-talented creative-writing students, we are left to wonder: Is this reality, or just another form of creative reordering?

The book begins with Freed's mother, an actress who judged her own talent to be so insufficient that she settled with resignation into a teaching career. It ends with her father, a shopkeeper who adored amateur theater.

Like all the other subjects of this book, Freed's parents are subjected to both cruelty and compassion. Freed can be harsh but her depictions are also often tender and full of forgiveness - perhaps more than she realizes.

Her parents have appeared in various guises throughout her writing, she says, and not always in a flattering light.

She tells of her intense discomfort at having them read "Home Ground," a novel she wrote based largely on her own family. Yet to her surprise, they loved the book. (Although her mother asked, "Don't you think you were a little too hard on Dad?")

In some ways her parents come across as grownup children, with their small vanities and large frustrations both mercilessly on display. Yet Freed never forgets that they were creative people who nurtured her own talents, and as she writes of them, one feels how achingly she misses them.

Her ex-husband fares a bit worse. Although Freed describes him compassionately as a well-intentioned man who simply found himself bound to the wrong partner, she shames him with a long and laugh-out-loud funny story about his struggles to stop snoring.

Even as she tells this tale, she admits that snoring stories are cruel. And yet, she adds, "Audiences adore a well-told snoring story." So she goes on to tell us hers.

She also writes scathingly about the creative-writing classes she has taught over the years, and the students she pities, loves, and despises, all at the same time.

Her job is a fraud, she tells us, because, "to my mind writing cannot be taught." And yet she teaches. (Although one has to wonder if she ever will be invited to do so again after the publication of this book.)

Her native country comes in for a similar treatment. The longing she still feels for it permeates much of what she writes, and yet she chose early to reject it. It's an enigma that all writers face, she insists, "the restless pursuit of a way back while remaining steadfastly at a distance."

"Enigma" is perhaps a good word for much of what Freed chooses to explore. Who can ever really explain the way that love balances with anger, that fiction reshapes fact, or that leaving a place may be a means of finding it? No one truly can, but it is a writer's job to try, Freed seems to believe, and that effort is the memoir she offers us here.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's Book editor.

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