Don’t Be Afraid to Make Sh*t Up
Oops, I lied again.
I promised we’d get into the Seven Principles of using your real life in fiction. But again I’m gonna jump forward to a critical corollary:
Don’t be afraid to fictionalize.
I used to be. I thought if I made stuff up, that would be lying. Being untrue to real life.
I would read Henry Miller and Ernest Hemingway and think, “See, they’re telling the truth! Everything they’re writing is real! That’s why it works! That’s what I’ve gotta do!”
Of course they were fictionalizing.
They were exaggerating.
They were heightening reality.
The trick was they were doing it so skillfully, I couldn’t tell. You mean Henry Miller didn’t really do that thing with the carrot in the doorway in Brooklyn?
Even if he did, who cares?
The truth is not the truth.
Fiction is the truth.
Remember, going back to our first principle of using your real life in fiction:
Make the internal external.
Why do we as writers do this? To involve the reader. In my real life, during the era of The Knowledge, I was allowing my inner demons of guilt, regret, and self-loathing to keep me from coming together as a real working writer.
The reader is not going to sit still for that.
It’s too interior.
It’s too bornig.
Make sh*t up.
Was I really beaten up by gangsters at three in the morning in the wetlands near Glen Island Casino? Was my boss Marvin Bablik really honored with a gala at the Waldorf-Astoria? Did my wife really fire seven shots from a nickel-plated .45 into the rear end of a vehicle loaded with Haitian assassins?
No, but all of those actions were on-theme. They all could have happened and should have happened within the invented reality of the story. And all of them are explicit statements of the parallel interior redemption narratives of the two central characters.
The rule is
You can fictionalize, but only to make the internal external.
Or put another way:
You may fictionalize only on-theme.
The Sun Also Rises is one of greatest pieces of American fiction ever. If you haven’t read it, please do. (We’ll give Hemingway a pass on his pages of anti-Semitism, homophobia, etc.)
How much of the book is “true?” My guess is 97.8%.
For sure, Hemingway hung out at the Select, the Dome, the Deux Magots. For sure he was in the First World War. For sure he traveled with friends, post-war, to Biarritz and San Sebastian and Pamplona. The bars, the bull fights, the countryside, the fishing streams, I’m sure they’re exactly as he described them in The Sun Also Rises. The Lost Generation emptiness and ennui, the hangovers, the hipper-than-thou humor, the avoidance of all topics of seriousness, the habitual drunkenness … I’m sure these are spot-on, down to the English expat slang and the details of the men’s and ladies’ wardrobe. Hemingway’s friends in the book are either real or easily-recognized composites. He probably knew someone exactly like Lady Brett Ashley and probably was in love with her and she with him.
All that is “real.” It’s all “true.”
One critical component: that the protagonist, Jake Barnes, i.e. Hemingway, had his manhood shot away in the war.
I know, I know. It’s been done before. Other characters in fiction have suffered similar emasculating wounds.
But nothing ever matched the power of that fictional incapacitation, because it told the whole story in one stroke.
That war-spawned impotence defined Hemingway’s generation as surely as “I can’t get no satisfaction” defined a later one.
What does that mean for you and me as we begin the novel that’s based on our real life?
Don’t hesitate to go beyond the truth.
Identify its essence, in your character-in-the-story and in the story itself.
Then heighten that truth.
Make it pop, so that we the readers feel it and get it.
Make the internal external.
Don’t be afraid to make sh*t up.
“Make it pop, so that we the readers feel it and get it.”
One of the reasons I listen to hip-hop.
Eminem asked (in a song lyric) something like: “If my music is literal how can I raise a child?”
“Hey kids, do you like violence?
Wanna see me stick nine-inch nails through each one of my eyelids?
Wanna copy me and do exactly like I did?”
Well, I’d better go mine my own work for self-analysis as something tells me my fascination with serial killers goes beyond the inspiration of The Story Grid.
Thanks for jumping forward again – this was exactly the reminder I needed to read today!
Using a pen name I made up has been my greatest asset in creating fiction. I get to be anyone I choose, doing and having done anything at all. Starting out as a fictional character myself frees me to create others who do whatever I can imagine! The challenge is reining in my imagination to make it work for readers, rather than running off on its own.
Trying to map this insight to narrative nonfiction.
Malcolm Gladwell wasn’t really standing in the street watching when a policeman pulled a gun and shot an innocent man carrying a cell phone (if my memory of the book BLINK serves). But, a policeman pulling a gun and shooting someone because his brain automatically identified a deadly threat under stress was a ‘larger than life’ event that illustrated what Gladwell wanted to say in BLINK.
It was an external event that illustrated the internal. In real life, external events happen that are so wild people say ‘you couldn’t make that up.’ Maybe one reason that narrative nonfiction writers obsess about research. They need to finding these external events that will illustrate their internal story.
Now I need to go read my McPhee and see how he does it…
As always, thank you. Again!
Bought The Knowledge. Bought a second copy of War of Art.
Steve, I have been reading your posts, off and on, for years, and today’s post is, for my own needs just now, the BEST you ever wrote. I am currently in Rome, my second home away from my other in Fort Payne, Alabama (old Cherokee town in the mountains)and rewriting Last Living Love Letter. Here in Rome this spring I wrote 412 pages in two months, put it aside till six days ago when I returned to Rome and am getting the ms ready to be taken by helicopter to my agent in NYC in January. Yes, sir, it’s based on my true life, true inner world, made external and I predict it’s destined to become a bestseller with a quick movie deal attached, a sequel’s teeth deep in the neck of this beautiful monster. Of my ten previous books, only one hit the golden bull’s eye and was nominated for a Pulitzer and a National Book Award by Random House. Now, baby, Last Living Love Letter, is about to bust balls and cradle hearts. Thanks, Steve, for keeping wood piled atop the Eternal Fire. Love your work, man. Now stop reading this get back to writing.
“Make it pop, so that we the reader feel it and get it” – THE KNOWLEDGE right from the beginning sure did that for me. 🙂 Funny now seeing how I got hooked into my inner sh*t.
These are my favorite blogs, similar to when you published “The Lion’s Gate”. It makes reading the novel even more interesting.
Your admission about ‘writing as therapy’ in a previous post was spot on. I tried to write a book a few years ago called ‘While Fat Americans Sleep’ just after returning from Afghanistan. It is so filled with vitriol I’m ashamed it came out of me.
A buddy and I just started a training company. We teach resilience, adaptability, mental skills, leadership, etc…some of this must be taught ‘open Kimono’–however, if neither of us has wrestled our demons to the ground–we could not only embarrass ourselves and students–but essentially spew dysfunction on unsuspecting people.
Close to ‘distance yourself’ in the hopes that our own struggles can be used as examples, not models of behavior.
Love the book, but the every other day blog is the true special sauce.
When you wrote Last of the Amazons, did you have a hard time imagining what the landscape or settings would look like in ancient Greece?
I’m enjoying your Foolscap videos and look forward to the thirds one.
Roy H. Williams just introduced me to Michael Chabon’s Moonglow. The description sounds like this, exactly: Chabon making stuff up in order to tell the truth more clearly.
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