Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

When Truth Doesn’t Work

By Steven Pressfield | Published: April 8, 2015

I’ve been working on a project that has a strong autobiographical component. One thing I’ve discovered is that you can’t tell the literal truth. The truth doesn’t work.

Instead I’ve had to fictionalize wildly. And the weird part is, the more extravagantly I fictionalize, the more like the truth it sounds.

I was born in a crossfire hurricane

And I howled at my Ma in the drivin’ rain

Are you working with material that’s “true” or largely true? Are the characters in your narrative “real” or close to real? Then you’re wrestling with the same problem I am.

"I'm Jumpin' Jack Flash, it's a gas, gas, gas!"

What exactly is that problem?

The problem is that we’re trying to convey an emotional reality—the truth of how we felt or how our protagonist feels. And we’re running head-on into the inability of the literal truth to convey that reality.

When Mick Jagger wrote the lyrics to Jumpin’ Jack Flash, he was starting with the subjective experience of his (or the song’s hero’s) life, i.e. how that world felt from the inside. He understood that he couldn’t duplicate that subjective experience in the listener’s mind by reproducing the actual events that produced it for him …

I was born in a comfortable middle-class family

I was educated at the London School of Economics

How does Mick solve this problem? He creates in metaphor or fiction (i.e., stuff that didn’t literally happen) the story-facts that will produce in the listener’s mind the same subjective experience that the writer/protagonist felt in real life.

I was raised by a toothless, bearded hag

I was schooled with a strap right across my back

Consider another example. The “lost generation” of WWI returned from the horrors of trench warfare and the senseless slaughter of hundreds of thousands feeling soul-devastated, hollowed-out, emasculated. So Ernest Hemingway, seeking to replicate that subjective experience in his post-war masterpiece The Sun Also Rises, has his protagonist Jake Barnes literally emasculated. A war wound has left Jake in that state.

But Hemingway doesn’t stop with the wound itself. He demonstrates the agony that this maiming produces in his protagonist. When we meet Jake, he is already in love with Lady Brett Ashley, a beautiful, charismatic woman who seems in many ways to be Jake’s soulmate. Worse, Brett is in love with Jake. Jake’s wound is thus a source of torment for both of them. Then, to twist the knife even deeper, Hemingway has Brett engage in a series of meaningless affairs before Jake’s eyes—and compels Jake to endure them, knowing not only that there’s nothing he can do to lessen the pain but also that his wound is at least partially the source of Brett’s recklessness and despair.

In other words, the subjective experience Hemingway is trying to convey to the reader—the soul-devastation and spiritual impotence of the generation ruined by WWI—is made objective and “real” by the fictional reality he has created for his protagonist.

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards may have had wonderful Mums who loved them dearly and never failed to provide a bowl of hot porridge before packing them off to grammar school. But maybe it didn’t feel that way to Mick and Keith, or, if they were writing not so much about themselves as about mates from their generation, maybe they reckoned that the years of post-WWII, post-Empire England had scarred their generation as much the First World War had devastated Hemingway’s.

I was drowned, I was washed up and left for dead

I fell down to my feet and I saw they bled

I frowned at the crumbs of a crust of bread

Yeah, yeah, yeah

I was crowned with a spike right through my head

Sometimes “fact” is not enough. The reproduction of literal truth often does not produce in the reader the emotion we as artists are hoping to produce. We have to beef it up. We have to find the metaphor and then present that metaphor as real.

Oedipus doesn’t just want to sleep with his mother; he literally does it. He even marries her. Nor does he only fantasize about killing his father; his hand grasps the sword that literally takes the king’s life.

The moral for me, as I work, is “Don’t be afraid to open up the jet pack.”

I’m famous, the girls all love me

I’m making tons of money and having lots of fun

ain’t quite the same as

I’m Jumping Jack Flash

It’s a gas, gas, gas!

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

31 Responses to “When Truth Doesn’t Work”

  1. Mary Doyle
    April 8, 2015 at 5:37 am

    “Don’t be afraid to open up the jet pack” – love this! Thanks, this was a timely post for me Steve.

    • Philomathean
      April 8, 2015 at 3:27 pm

      Mary,

      I always enjoy your comments, you crack me up.

  2. Deb
    April 8, 2015 at 6:51 am

    Hi Steve —

    You said: In other words, the subjective experience Hemingway is trying to convey to the reader—the soul-devastation and spiritual impotence of the generation ruined by WWI—is made objective and “real” by the fictional reality he has created for his protagonist.

    I have read and reread this paragraph at least a dozen times this morning, and every time I do it feels somehow even more true.

    Isn’t this what the best of all historical fiction writers are trying to achieve . . . To convey the subjective experience of any given era as objectified by the “fictional reality he has created for his protagonist”?

    So true it makes me shiver.

  3. April 8, 2015 at 6:54 am

    Hi Steven,

    I’m with Mary. Many thanks, and very timely. Cheers!

  4. Lizzie Davies
    April 8, 2015 at 7:52 am

    A friend alerted me to this article as she knows I am grappling with this issue with a screenplay I am currently writing. I was so peeved when my film tutor told me that I couldn’t use a scene because no-one would ever believe it – despite it being true! So I guess we just have to master the craft of keeping integrity, conveying the essence of the story and weaving fiction in seamlessly to the whole experience.

  5. April 8, 2015 at 7:56 am

    Elie Wiesel said the same thing: “Some stories are true that never happened.”

    Often the only way you can at emotional truth is by making up a story, because the reality cannot reflect the inner processing that made it true.

  6. BING
    April 8, 2015 at 9:18 am

    I salute and honor the writers that take on this task to dig deep and create a story to share with the world. I have never considered that the writer might have to change some truth to create the effect that she/he is trying to get across. I am not a writer, I am an artist who also changes the truth and digs deep to create powerful effects to share with the world.

    Thank you Steven, I always learn so much hangin around this site.
    – BING

  7. April 8, 2015 at 9:43 am

    An eclectic, penetrating, insightful post. Thanks.

  8. April 8, 2015 at 10:00 am

    This is wonderful! Thanks!

  9. John Christensen
    April 8, 2015 at 10:01 am

    Great post, Steven. It reminds me of Twain’s comment, “There has been much tragedy in my life; at least half of it actually happened.”

    I hope I can figure out how to make it work in non-fiction.

  10. April 8, 2015 at 10:12 am

    I’m jump’n jack flash! Great reminder to write our truth and leave the facts behind. Thanks Steve! Julie

  11. April 8, 2015 at 11:05 am

    Of course I had to go learn to play this on the guitar because it’s stuck in my head!!

    I’ve wanted to write a memoir for a long time. I grew up the daughter of a professional female bodybuilder who gardened in a thong in front of the neighbors and won city-wide awards for her yard and state-wide awards for her bodybuilding, appearing on national television several times. A wild childhood filled with wild characters but there was also a lot of love and care so it felt normal to me until I grew to see it wasn’t.

    Although I kept an extremely angsty teenage journal, I have always felt a little wrong about dramatizing my childhood to reflect how I felt. For this reason your post this week is valuable to me.

    • April 8, 2015 at 11:33 am

      Erika, a great book to read for that issue is Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn (or basically ANY of Henry Miller’s books.) I can’t tell what is real and what is made-up in his wild and crazy tales of his life, but it’s inspiring as hell to read that stuff. I’d be amazed if even one-tenth of it actually happened, but it’s all totally convincing.

      • April 8, 2015 at 11:47 am

        I’ve seen a strange but consistent pattern with my songwriting.

        If I munge together a bunch of stuff that never happened, people think it’s a blow by blow of some event in my life. I get a lotta sympathy.

        When I’ve written lyrics too on-the-nose, they fall flat.

        Nobody wants to know the truth. They want to feel the truth.

        • Philomathean
          April 8, 2015 at 3:25 pm

          Joel,March 25:

          Writers speak truth. It’s the only reason to write.

          If she doesn’t want to hear the truth, she’ll albatross you big time.

          Lol

        • April 8, 2015 at 8:53 pm

          Joel, I started to hack together a short story about the life of a professor. As I got into the shitty first draft, I realized “this will never work — it’s boring as hell.” Given it was based on personal experience, that was also illuminating.

          I suppose I could revisit the idea and make up a bunch of stuff. Perhaps the notion might have some merit after all… 😉

      • April 9, 2015 at 9:19 am

        Put it on my library list, thanks! Maybe it’ll change my life? :)

    • April 8, 2015 at 11:44 am

      I’m a bass player, so when my band did it, I got to hammer that B over and over. Plus, I did all the vocals, so that was fun.

      Amazing how real it felt, despite my loving childhood in bucolic settings, to scream those lyrics at the audience.

      No feather boa, but a whole lotta attitude I had to get out of my system.

    • April 8, 2015 at 1:05 pm

      Erika,
      The idea of feeling normal amidst the madness is one of the best places to write from. I suggest you consider writing your memoir about that, illustrating it with your wild childhood, instead of the other way around.
      In other words, the story is about how love is nourishing, no matter how wild it looks, as illustrated by your life. What it’s not about is your life.
      See the difference?
      And that way, it’s universal.
      Sounds great.
      Can’t wait to read it.
      Best,
      Marion

  12. Dick Yaeger
    April 8, 2015 at 12:39 pm

    VERY interesting and thought-provoking as you usually are. I’ve similarly wondered about the “truth” in biographies that might occur when a living celebrity spills his guts to his chosen biographer. What happens when the writer drapes and skews honest reality with some pseudo-fiction to make a point desired by his client? Is this more serious than the political “spin” we experience every day in the news? Should biographers be held to a higher standard than TV producers and news editors? I recently listened to Walter Isaacson speak about his biography of Steve Jobs, and how he cherry-picked key points (after Jobs passed) for his best-selling book. I’m OK with that, and understand, but are omissions a form of fiction? Jeez, my mind is numb. If I stick with pure fiction, it’s a lot easier. Thanks again, Steve.

    • April 9, 2015 at 2:53 pm

      Dick, I do think biographers should be held to the REAL truth. That’s what biography is supposed to be, isn’t it? Not fiction. Of course it’s possible to make a very strong point, as you say, just by how you edit, omit, etc.

      You’re right, it’s a lot easier to stick with fiction.

  13. Fran Civile
    April 8, 2015 at 1:20 pm

    All this talk about fictionalizing reality to make it more real confuses me. I wonder right now how I could enjoy reading a biography.And on the other hand, in a comment above Lizzie Davies says:”I was so peeved when my film tutor told me that I couldn’t use a scene because no-one would ever believe it – despite it being true!”

    Thank you Steve

  14. Linda Erickson
    April 8, 2015 at 3:20 pm

    Great! I so enjoyed reading this.
    Thank you,
    Linda

  15. April 8, 2015 at 4:55 pm

    My dilemma

    What is the truth? This is the question posed at the beginning of my autobiography Wildrover.

    Is Wildrover a true story. In my mind yes. For some of the characters though, theirs will be a different story altogether. To try to capture the truth from all points of view is impossible. For one, the dialogue is invented to serve the story. Does this make it any less true or real? Also, for legal reasons (defamation) I am going to have to change the names and descriptions of people and places so that no-one can sue me. These characters will therefore become a fiction.

    So why call it a true story?

    To solve this dilemma I have written the story from the readers point of view. In other words, the truth lies in the effect the story has on the reader.

    Does it make them cry?
    Does it make them laugh?
    Does it surprise them?
    Does it take the reader on a journey that they are determined to see through to the end?
    Is it inspirational?
    Does it offer hope?
    Has it touched the readers soul?
    Does it make them more grateful for their own life?
    Does it make them want to dare their own genius?

    If the answer is Yes to one or more of these questions, then Wildrover is a story that remains True to it’s original objective.

    Hope this helps

    Gary

  16. Scrivener
    April 8, 2015 at 5:55 pm

    Now when people say, “You just made that up!” I’ll have a comeback. My gut memory is always more reliable than my brain memory. Folks seem to need a documentary of an experience, but why spoil a good story with the truth? Story for my soul – BBC for my brain.

    Thanks.

  17. Ellen
    April 9, 2015 at 1:01 am

    This is fine for fiction. But if we’re writing non-fiction (personal essays, personal experience, memoirs, etc.) then we need to find a way to make the truth work. Creative non-fiction is not about fudging the truth :)

    • April 9, 2015 at 2:55 pm

      Absolutely. We’re talking about fiction in this post — and that’s what it should say on the spine of the book.

  18. April 9, 2015 at 8:30 pm

    Steven – remember the old Skin Bracer commercial?
    “Thanks, I needed that.”

  19. April 13, 2015 at 10:01 am

    Good read Steve, it’s 4:30 a.m. and I am about to work on my novel before I head off to work with the RNZAF. Taken to its bone, fiction or non-fiction, what’s the difference?

    Is not a metaphorical biography just as revealing as one that is pure documentry?

    Cheers

    John

  20. April 18, 2015 at 11:59 pm

    As long as it is a work of fiction – a little juicing is fine.

  21. Jeremy
    April 30, 2015 at 12:36 pm

    That’s one of the best breakdowns of that post-WWI aspect of The Sun Also Rises I’ve read. It’s a rich book, impressive for a first novel (watch how the actions of the bulls mirror what is happening between the friends).

    It never ceases to amaze me, synchronicity. Reading back entries in Writing Wednesday while I’m taking an online writing course, I had this article open. I just left a comment about Hemingway’s characterization in The Sun Also Rises in the class and click over to discover you talking about the very same book. Strange.