The musician Amanda Palmer has a wonderful blog post this week that details the experiences of her and her husband, writer Neil Gaiman, while he wrote his most recent novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Besides being an honest and intimate view of a marriage between artists (aspects of which are true for any marriage, really), she provides one of the better metaphors for describing to what degree an artist reveals himself/herself within a given work of art.
To paraphrase badly: Artists with a lower 'art-blender' setting reveal identifiable chunks and recognizable auto-biographical pieces, while artists who set the blender higher shred and spin those auto-biographical pieces so that discerning what is personal and what is auto-biographical from what is imagined is very, very difficult.
I've been struggling to come up with a better metaphor or a better simile, and I can't. The 'art-blender' image has stuck. Check out Amanda Palmer's blog.
One thing that occurs, while thinking about my own fiction, is that even when we know--even when I know--the autobiographical source for a scene or a description within one of my pieces, the through-line from idea to what survives on the page is circuitous at best. We are all guilty of assuming that we can pluck out auto-biography from an artist's work. (Terry Gross of NPR's Fresh Air, who is a fantastic interviewer, almost always deep dives from fictional work into writer's psyche with zero hesitation; while I like this as reader/listener--who doesn't like a narrative? who doesn't want a quick answer for why something is so--as a writer, I kind of hate it.)
I kind of hate it because the origins and causality are so twisted. To use an easy, pop-culture-y example: we know Bruce Wayne became Batman because a street thug killed his parents right in front of him. A + B = Dark Knight. But it wasn't so simple. There are a lot of variables both within the boy/man and the situation -- not the least of which is the bat that swoops into Wayne's window right when he was searching for the proper symbol to best affect the psychology of the criminals he intends to hunt. The bat has little to do with the fact that Bruce watched his parents die when he was a boy. The bat came from somewhere else; either from within Bruce himself or from the shadows. We don't know where or why, and that's awesome.
Mystery--the bat that swoops in at the right moment--will always appear in someone's artistic work. Even when an artist sets her blender on 1, she will still keep herself from being wholly revealed. I think this is why so many of us take on our artistic endeavors; we throw our (often uninteresting) biographies at the 'art-blender,' and we never fail to yield a strange, compelling concoction that keeps us doing it again and again. In fact, I think one of the reasons many of us become artists is because for brief spurts of time, we make ourselves unrecognizable to ourselves. And sometimes, a bat crashes through the window to remind us that the world is a strange, unknowable place.
I set my 'art-blender' on about 6, by the way. Or at least I think I do.