By Steven Pressfield
Published: December 2, 2016
[Continuing our new Mon-Wed-Fri series, “Using Your Real Life in Fiction” … ]
I said last week that we would go through the seven principles of using your real life in fiction. But on second thought, we’d better skip to Principle #7 and study it first. It’s by far the most important.
Detach yourself from the character that is “you.”
The first three novels I wrote (all unpublished and unpublishable) were excruciatingly autobiographical. I was the central character. Everything was about me. But what made them unbearable to read was that the real-life me, the writer, was still inextricably, personally bound up in the agonies that the fictional-me was going through on the page.
The stories weren’t fiction, they were therapy.
I was inflicting my real-life angst on the poor reader.
I was not giving her gold; I was giving her ore.
The manuscripts should’ve been stuck in a drawer and left there.
Reading this, you may be thinking, “Steve, you’re being too hard on yourself. I’ll bet if we pulled these pieces out of your closet, they wouldn’t be half as bad as you’re describing them.”
Trust me, they are.
And so is every other manuscript I’ve read from aspiring writers who use themselves as the protagonists of their works before they’ve gained perspective and emotional distance on their own selves and their own lives.
By the way, this principle applies to nonfiction and memoir as well. That story you’re writing about your grandmother who was a spy for MI5 in Cairo during World War II? Be careful. Don’t let family pride and ego blind you to that indelible truth:
Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t
The Big Positive about using your own life in fiction is that you know it intimately. You feel the emotions in your bones. You have passion for it.
It’s your blood.
It’s your baby.
The Big Negative is that self-intimacy can blind us to how our character—that wonderful, fascinating “us”—is playing in the eyes of the cold-blooded, easily-distracted, unknown-to-us reader.
Remember what you and I as writers are competing against.
Donald Trump’s tweets.
The bar is high, baby.
We’re going up against Spiderman and Harry Potter and Vladimir Putin.
It is imperative that we, as writers, detach ourselves emotionally from the character that is “us” and assess that character’s appeal and interest with complete objectivity (or as close to objectivity as we can come.)
I know, I know. When we hear Beyonce sing certain songs of marital betrayal, we think, “Wow, this is being torn straight from her guts, it’s so real!”
Keep in mind: Beyonce has sung that song 876 times. What we’re watching is not real-life agony or rage enacted in the moment. We’re watching a performance by an artist.
That’s what you and I have to deliver in our work.
Art is artifice.
The character of Holden Caulfield is, I will wager, very very close to the character of J.D. Salinger. But Holden Caulfield is not J.D. Salinger and J.D. Salinger is not Holden Caulfield. Holden Caulfield is the creation of an artist named J.D. Salinger who had gained perspective and distance on his own life and, from that, had created a deliberately-crafted, artificial entity to which he gave the name “Holden Caulfield.”
Was it hard for me to use myself as a character in The Knowledge?
No, because I had thirteen years (from the time I was twenty-four till I was thirty-seven) of writing about myself the wrong way. Thirteen years of being too close to myself. Thirteen years of having no perspective.
And I had another thirty years of writing after that.
So I could do it. I could step back. I could see “myself” as a character. I wasn’t tied up in “me.” I had no ego about the character that bore my name.
But that capacity takes time to develop. It takes pain. It takes embarrassment. It’s a process of maturation.
If you’re a young writer using your real life in fiction, focus first on that.
Get out of your own space.
Pull back to thirty-thousand feet.
See yourself cold.
See yourself without attachment.
See yourself the way you’d see another person.
Real-as-real is a tough sell. If we put J.D. on the page, we’re gonna fail.
We gotta put Holden.
[Next post we’ll get back to our Seven Principles in order.]