(Tune in to Writing Wednesdays on the next few Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for the continuation of the series “Using Your Real Life in Fiction” — and for more of The Knowledge‘s backstory.)
Two paragraphs on pages 140-141 are what The Knowledge was about for me. That was the payload. The other 273 pages are just the narrative architecture to carry what’s in those few lines.
Remember our earlier series on this blog called “Why I Write?” My biggest reason, at least for my early (unpublished) books, was I was writing out of pain. Pain and guilt. Pain and remorse.
I can’t prove it, but I suspect a lot of writers pound the keys for that same reason.
“Everybody commits a crime,” [Marvin Bablik says on pages 158-9 of The Knowledge.] “You, me, everybody. From that day your life becomes about nothing but dealing with that crime. How do you handle the fact that you’ve done something that can never be undone? Deny it? Seek redemption? Do you try to justify your crime? Become a criminal? Do you demand punishment? Square it with God by making sure you pay for what you’ve done? The Jewish religion is about justice. You devout? Me neither. I’m not even circumcised.”
The real-life period on which The Knowledge is based was, for me, about an unforgivable act I had committed against someone I loved. For thirty years I tried to write my way out of that.
It’s impossible of course. Words can never make up for acts. But I wanted, for myself if for no one else, to get it down on paper. To say I’m sorry. To articulate the act and the regret therefor in the hope that, like a blues song or a heartbroken poem, it might ameliorate or at least express something a reader could relate to him- or herself.
But I could never do it. I couldn’t find the vehicle. I couldn’t find the mode of expression. I just wasn’t a good enough writer.
I felt like I was carrying around one mega-concentrated drop of cyanide, and I couldn’t figure out how to discharge that drop into the landfill without poisoning somebody else in the process.
Do you remember this verse from Joni Mitchell’s “Love Or Money?”
He tried but he could not get it down
Not for truth or mystery
Not for love or money
Did something terrible happen to you?
Did you do something unforgivable to someone else?
You and I as writers are, sometimes anyway, seeking to use fiction, to employ narrative to neutralize some real-life cleavage of the heart.
The problem is we can’t just state our pain or regret straight out. It’s whiny. It’s weak. It doesn’t work.
Our novel can’t say, “Look how shamefully X treated me.” Or, “Group Y is evil; see what they did to my beloved Group Z.”
The original pain or crime must be set within a context that
1) Gives it meaning, not just to you and me as the writer, but to the reader
2) Renders it universal so that the reader can enter the experience and claim it as her own
3) Makes it beautiful.
(By “beautiful,” I mean funny if the vehicle is a comedy, scary if it’s a horror tale, sexy or romantic if it’s a love story.)
For me, in The Knowledge, I had to evolve a fictional “me,” an invented narrative, a fictional person-I-hurt, and even a slightly fictionalized crime. I had to create a parallel redemption story, involving other (fictional) characters and other fictional events. And I had to set the whole thing within a genre—in this case a Big Lebowski-type detective story—that allowed for humor, style, and aesthetic distance.
I was able to set that single drop of cyanide within a couple of acres of peanut brittle, and when that drop came—the two paragraphs (which are still too painful for me to quote here)—it slipped seamlessly into the narrative. It fit. The puzzle turned on it.
Do I feel better now? A little. As much as you can.
Do you, the writer, have your own two paragraphs? That is a valid reason to write. It’s an honorable reason to write. I wish you luck. I hope these posts, and your own Muse, will help you find the vehicle and the language to “get those paragraphs down.”
Thanks for this post! Those two paragraphs are powerful indeed. I have to wonder if finding the right vehicle happens when the writer is truly ready to forgive him/herself – maybe it’s that readiness plus craft that makes it work for both the writer and for the reader. Lots to think about here.
Wow. With love, deep appreciation and respect.
Lots to think, feel, deal and heal. For me, what better timing for THE KNOWLEDGE to be published and the M/W/F Writing Wednesday, Christmas Time [this time of year] and the miracle of “the muse” to come forth within all of us in the new year of 2017 whether the writer or the reader. Hanukkah begins the Eve of December 24 (Christmas Eve). Hanukkah and Christmas Day both being [on my desk calendar] for December 25.
I saw them. I grok.
That said, on the writer aspect, what’s interesting to me is that you could craft a story around that situation, making it integral to the story, and do it without weakening it. While I identify as a photographer, I’ve also been a writer and have a story I’ve been developing ever since having read, “Nobody Wants To Read Your Sh*t”.
There was this fairly recent event that was soul crushing which affected me strongly. When I try to create a story around it, the story either sucks or the event becomes trivialized. It isn’t concept or theme, but it is the reason why I want to create that story. Now I’m closer. I know it can be done. Thank you!
Technical difficulties. The pdf file for The Knowledge doesn’t sync with the page numbers you’re referencing. Of course is could be operator error.
Yes, it was as though time slowed down when I read those paragrahs for the first time, knowing soul alchemy when I see it. All the time and tears you poured into your unpublished work slid gracefully onto pages 140-141 for us now, and for you of course. Only time can put our choices into perspective for us, and only if we’re willing to see them. Yours is a graceful rendition, Steven.
This hit me as very true.
My first book was basically about how I couldn’t save my little sister, who I was left to raise from the age of 8 until I finally escaped the house at age 19. The very day I left, tragedy struck. It’s hard to forgive myself. I never occurred to me that my first book’s main character goal was to go back in time and save his little brother from dying. This is tmi for a blog post reply but I totally get it now.
So profound and honest and true, I’m having difficulty finding the words to say thank you. So thank you from my heart to yours will have to do.
Another powerful post, Steve!
I am so grateful you are in the world, Steve;
being who you are,
doing what you do.
You are a Healing,
and an inspiration for me, for so many.
No, not yet but I’ve caught glimpses of my “two paragraphs.” Another reason to get back to the writing – to let my truth come out.
I was glad you didnt say the real “crime.” Felt that to do so would have weakened both this essay, and the book.
A good lesson for me.
Let your biographer dig it out 70 years from now .
I feel the agony you must have gone through Steven. But, you did it so well that I am certain you have forgiven yourself. Now that’s real success for a writer!
I’m confused by something at the bottom of page 140. He says he can’t recall the happy times in the past. But wasn’t he recalling the happy times in that paragraph and the one before it?
Hi – I have this book on kindle and I can’t tell which pages are 140-141. Can anyone help me with that? Thanks!
Right between the eyes! “The worst part is I did it out of cowardice.”
Whammo. Target, target, target, Cease Fire.
I have listened to “The War of Art” at least six times, and have intellectually understood what you said about Resistance is fed by our unwillingness to do the work, go pro, etc.
Fiction sneaks in and smashes me when I’m least expecting it. I’ve already bought in, my defenses are down, I’m into the story then, “WHACK!”
I had to stop reading after that paragraph. It sent me into my own torture chamber of unresolved memories of pain, sins, evils, shortcomings, lies, addictions, distractions…Resistance’s Greatest Hits.
Nicely done. When I’ve described your non-fiction and this blog to others, I say that Pressfield is a Brian Whisperer. It feels like you’re talking directly to me–that you can see my insides better than I can.
Once I let my ego deflate a bit, I can recognize that what you describe is the human condition–you’re just one of the very, very, very rare few with the courage to share your story.
One of my favorite songs is by a band called “Third Eye Blind”, Wounded. About a woman who was raped, and has gone into isolation. They keep saying, come back-we miss you. The lyrics are terrific. One line in particular is, “You tell ’em, that’s just my battle scar.”
Great way to look at our own self-inflicted wounds as well.
Holy shit that was heavy. I’m with ya my man
>>>”a Big Lebowski-type detective story”
I love that description of the book! Steven, you are indeed The Dude! Does that mean Mr. Coyne = Walter?
Steve, I admire and respect your blogs, and I’m sure those and your numerous superbly written books entertain, inform and inspire herds of writers, especially those who are new to self-actualization, and the writing and publishing game. I easily relate to your personal life, having had–and yet have–a lifestyle that many find “living the dream” with a few nightmares thrown in to keep the cosmic salad tossed with exotic herbs one’s tongue can’t fully identify but craves. I’m up before dawn today in Rome, a stark contrast to my life back in the mountains of north Alabama, where I escaped at the age of 17 to thumb to NYC. You were a Marine–and always a Marine, right?–and it so happens that my lead character in my new book, Last Living Love Letter, was a Marine. He is currently an internally known archaeologist, bestselling author, and professor at Georgetown University. He’s also an American Indian, standing out when he walks the streets of Rome. His Medicine bracelet jingles with every step. That he has received several death threats after exposing the big stakes and illegal fake Native American artifact market in the USA, Asia, and Europe, is but one more boulder atop his landslide life. Steve, you clearly work so hard writing books and blogs–not to mention a more personal life–that I don’t want to be perceived as a smart ass adding even a tiny pebble to your heavy journey. But I have wondered why you don’t respond more often to those who react in writing to your blogs. I’m surprised Shawn hasn’t, to my humble knowledge, nudged you to do that. You and I know the game: People feel more part of something when there is interaction, and they then likely tell others, upping the chances of selling more books. I have found this to be true, time and time again, on both my personal site and my Native Defender site, addressing Native American and American history, on Facebook and from answering all fan letters. That strangers, fans, have shown up knocking uninvited at my door is a another matter. In any event, I cherish your posts, and often look forward to them. Keep’em coming!
Thank you, Thank you.
Steve, we’ve been in touch before (Gates of Fire). Hemingway said (more or less), Writing is Easy. All you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed. I’ve never been more reminded of that quote than reading The Knowledge. It’s like nothing you’ve ever written before. Thanks for bleeding for it.
Years ago, on this same blog, I asked the question “Why should I write?” Today you gave the answer. I too committed a crime and now I write.
With tears in my eyes – thank you, Steve, for all your writing.
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