By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 10, 2013
We’ve been talking for the past couple of weeks about making the leap from unpublishable to publishable. [More on “the Foolscap Method” in another week or so.] Some factors we’ve cited are artistic distance, thematic organization, the process of evolution from amateur to professional. Today let’s address the difference between real and artificial.
In a nutshell:
Real = unpublishable.
Artificial = publishable.
When I say “artificial,” I mean crafted with deliberate artistic intention so as to produce an emotional, moral, and aesthetic response in the reader.
What do I mean by “real?”
Real is your journal. Real are your letters (or these days your texts, tweets, Facebook postings.) Real is that which possesses no artistic distance.
Have you ever taken the ride “Pirates of the Caribbean” at Disneyland? I never did as a child (I was twenty-three when it opened) but I can imagine what a mind-blower it must have been to experience at six or seven or eight years old.
Everything about the Pirates of the Caribbean ride is artificial. That’s why it’s so good. That’s why it’s so much fun.
Now imagine being eight years old and experiencing thirty minutes with the real pirates of the Caribbean. You’d be slogging through a piranha-infested swamp on Cayo Guillermo or Far Tortuga, battling scurvy and humping your own weight in sailing tackle at 106 degrees Fahrenheit and 99% humidity, praying that when you returned to the ship tonight Cap’n Pegleg Jones did not assign you, without grub or even a tot of rum, to an eight-hour shift of bilge-pumping.
As writers, we’re always searching for Real. Real, we believe, is powerful. Real is authentic. Real is true.
In fact, real is boring. Real is tedious. Real is hell.
What we want is the simulacrum of Real.
The illusion of real.
We want artificially real.
The designers of Pirates of the Caribbean carefully and deliberately crafted every aspect of that ride, from the boat bench you sit on to the level of darkness in the tunnel to every doubloon and cannonball and the speech of every animatronic buccaneer you encounter along the way.
They designed the experience to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They gave it a hero, a villain, a theme. They made it a story that contained twists and surprises, ups and downs, scares and laughs, and that built to a satisfying, realistic-seeming climax.
I’m a huge fan of Henry Miller. What I love about Henry Miller’s stuff is that it’s completely artificial (that is, crafted with the reader’s emotional, moral, and aesthetic pleasure in mind) and yet it seems to have spooled off HM’s typewriter as effortlessly as you or I telling a story to a friend.
What Henry Miller has done–and what all publishable writers do–is to artfully fuse reality (in Miller’s case his real self, real stuff that he actually did) and artifice–i.e. the art of juxtaposition, time compression, exaggeration, fictionalization, etc.–to create the illusion of life, the illusion of personality, the illusion of meaning.
You could make a case (and I would) that what Henry Miller has wrought in his craft is more real than life, more true than fact, and imbued with more meaning than real-world existence.
One of Henry Miller’s first books was called Crazy Cock. You can tell from the title alone that he had not yet reached the level of Tropic of Capricorn or Quiet Days in Clichy.
No one said it was easy to raise your game from artlessly real to artfully real. It takes decades for some. But once we’ve learned the difference and can deliver the latter upon the page, we won’t have to plead with agents and editors to pay attention to our stuff. They’ll find it all by themselves.