Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Art is Artifice

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:

Jack Sparrow

We want the ILLUSION of real

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.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

18 Responses to “Art is Artifice”

  1. Basilis
    July 10, 2013 at 4:11 am

    There was a somehow similar post a year ago, and I feel that this one is the extension of it -or the “part 2”, if you prefer it that way.

    The phrase “artificially real” is the most accurate one to describe that special ingredient- cuddos, by the way!

    Generally speaking, we (humans) need something beyond us, something between reality and not, because we just feel that way.

    That’s why religions were created, that’s why art was created, and that’s why we love stories (and people make their leaving by creating them 😉 )

  2. July 10, 2013 at 10:13 am

    Art – artifice – has two parts, doesn’t it? The “intent to produce an emotional, moral and aesthetic response” and the deliberate craftsmanship used to produce that response. Intent crafted. “Real” is boring and tedious because “real” has no inherent meaning and has not been molded, by an act of communication, into purpose.

    Thanks.

  3. Bernadette
    July 10, 2013 at 10:30 am

    Thank you for putting this so succinctly. This is a post I am going to read over and over. Reminds me of a Philip K. Dick quote I have hanging above my desk, where he says the reason he writes is because reality doesn’t live up to his standards.

  4. July 10, 2013 at 10:32 am

    Great stuff, Steve. Thanks.

    It’s always amazing to me how positive the connotations are around the word “artifice” and how negative they are toward “artificial.” So you’re positive use of the word, harkening back to it’s roots of artifice and art, put a smile on my face. Versimilitude is a virtue. Uncrafted reality is not.

    Quick question: could you give us, or do you know of where we could find, a more comprehensive list of techniques of artifice than the quick examples you provided (“juxtaposition, time compression, exaggeration, fictionalization, etc.”)?

    Thanks again, Steve

  5. July 10, 2013 at 11:16 am

    This is brillant! I enjoy how you explain ways to look at the world other than ‘one’ dimensional.

  6. The Blueprint
    July 10, 2013 at 11:40 am

    True

  7. jose juan
    July 10, 2013 at 12:42 pm

    so, art is the sunglasses we use to look a real wolrd outside the cavern

  8. Mike Mc.
    July 10, 2013 at 1:39 pm

    As someone that did first experience the descent from the indoor swamp into Pirates of the Carribean as a little boy, firing back with a toy musket in the days that was still allowed, bravo.

    Great post Steve.

  9. July 10, 2013 at 2:09 pm

    Right on, Steve. My friend says “Surviving a catastrophe is easy, you know what’s hard? Daily life is hard, living through years of the in-betweens!” Art gives us the catastrophes and the brief moments of glory and spares us the harshness of daily life, that’s why it’s artificial. And it makes the daily grind survivable.

  10. Takis
    July 10, 2013 at 2:22 pm

    Extraordinary! Now I understand why you chose, to make a fiction of the Spartans and the real battle of Thermopylae… Now I can also understand why James Cameron chose to base his artificial story of Jack and Rose, on the real story of the Titanic’s sink… Now I understand why Art is so beautiful and why I am being overwhelmed about movies and scripts… You are the master Steve, and yes, a small amount of fiction is required, to idealize the Battle of Thermopylae, or the Drama of Titanic’s sink…

  11. July 10, 2013 at 7:14 pm

    Ouch. That is the challenge with nonfiction too — too real can be boring but blow it up a bit with some spin or twist, give it some story and you have something someone will actually want to read.

  12. July 10, 2013 at 7:18 pm

    One my first critique partners called this “verisimilitude.” I had to scurry to the dictionary to learn this word, and still love it to this day. I sometimes tell my clients that learning to write well is about taking the engine apart, putting it back together, and understanding how all the parts work; it’s messy, and be prepared to get grease up to your elbows. And, that our job is to make a beautiful car that will take our reader to fantastic places. To do that we need to make the reading experience feel easy, seamless, and a beautiful ride.

  13. July 10, 2013 at 10:14 pm

    This post gave me chills. I realize now more than ever Im really just beginning my writing journey and the more I write the more I see this to be true. What you just said gives me a lot to think about. And I wonder does this hold true, to exaggerate/dramatize in non fiction too ;)?

    • July 11, 2013 at 12:36 am

      Hi, Tova, I think the same applies to good non-fiction. My book, Walking the Trail, One Man’s Journey Along the Cherokee Trail of Tears, is non-fiction. But it is written with the elements Steven has written about today. It was published by Random House and they nominated it for a Pulitzer Prize. It’s been read by over 500,000 now and I have seven books published. It’s on Kindle and in paperback at Amazon. Best of luck with your own writing. Believe!

  14. July 10, 2013 at 11:26 pm

    I guess this is why metaphor is so powerful too!

  15. July 11, 2013 at 12:31 am

    Steven, you nailed it! Professional writers are, indeed, not only artists, they are polished salesmen with almost a sixth sense, presenting at just the crucial moment what the buyer, the reader, wants and needs to fork over the time, energy and money.

  16. July 11, 2013 at 5:33 am

    So in other words, mythology.

  17. July 12, 2013 at 6:35 pm

    Brilliant as usual!
    The Disney Imagineers are a great example of people who can take reality and make it truly transcend to the an idealistic and fantastic level. When writing fiction I have always believed that it is important to remember the audience and try to move the story in ways that will not only seem real, but visceral and unforgettable.
    Thanks for another inspirational writing Wednesday!