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ARCHIVES OF November, 2016

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

7 Rules for Using Your Real Life in Fiction

By Steven Pressfield | Published: November 30, 2016

Today we start a multi-part series on using your real life in fiction. The example I’m going to use is my own newest novel, The Knowledge. We’ll bounce back and forth from story principles in the abstract to how these concepts were applied in The Knowledge.

"Hey! Taxi!"

“Hey! Taxi!”

I’m gonna put up a new post every Mon-Wed-Fri, just for this series. Hopefully we’ll run through Christmas.

If you have any questions, please feel free to write them in to the Comments section below. I’ll answer them as best I can.


Let’s start with what was honest-to-God, real-life true in The Knowledge:

In truth, I was driving a cab in New York City. I was broke. It was a high-crime period. I was finishing my third novel (all unpublished and unpublishable so far).

I had committed a terrible crime against my wife, which had broken up our marriage. I was desperate to redeem myself, both in her eyes and my own. I had become fixated on the idea that getting this new book published would, if not atone for what I had done, at least prove to my wife (and maybe to me too) that I wasn’t the bum and the loser that she thought I was.

That’s the set-up. That’s the real-life, exterior and interior foundation of the story.

The All Is Lost moment (again, in real-life) was me finishing the book and it failing to find a publisher. In other words, that’s the crash-and-burn moment at the climax of the true-life story. The Epiphanal moment is me deciding to pack up and move to L.A. to try to find work writing for the movies.

(This move, as it turned out, succeeded. It was the decision that made me a writer for real and put me on the path I’ve been on ever since.)

Still with me? To repeat, the above is the real-life narrative that I began with, about eighteen months ago, when I decided to write this story as a novel.

[By the way, if you haven’t ordered The Knowledge yet, please do. I know it’s tempting to tell yourself, “Oh, I’ll just follow along in these posts.” But trust me, you’ll get ten times more out of these if you can follow along in the book.]

The first thing I knew, assessing the true-life story elements described above, was that they weren’t enough for a novel.

They were too boring.

Too ordinary.

Too internal.

Maybe Henry James could do it, but I sure couldn’t.

I knew right away that I had to, as they say in England, tart this material up.

I had to fictionalize.

The question was how.

How much?

And where?

Before I address these questions, a short digression:

I’m reading a great book now—Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Notebook.

The Notebook┬átells how Coppola, starting with Mario Puzo’s novel, put together the screenplay and screen story that would become the movie, “The Godfather.”

Coppola had the exact opposite problem I had. He already had the jazzed-up story. He had Mario Puzo’s novel, which was a runaway bestseller. sensation-of-the-decade. Coppola’s issue was how to inform that material with his own sensitivity, to bring his own real-life instincts and genius to it.

Francis Ford Coppola comes from a family of artists and musicians. Like the Corleones, it was a close-knit, ambitious, high-achieving, multi-generational, immigrant Italian-American family.

Imagine for a moment that Coppola had the idea to write a novel about his real family. He might have come to the same conclusion I did about my own real-life material. It’s too ordinary, too boring, not enough drama, etc.

Then (let’s keep imagining) he is seized with an inspiration:

I’ll tell my family’s story. Except I’ll make them a gangster family.

See what I’m getting at?

With that single (imagined) stroke of fictionalization, our hypothetical Francis Ford Coppola has made his real-life family story a blockbuster.

In essence, that’s exactly what David Chase did with The Sopranos.

The Sopranos is basically the story of an upwardly-mobile American family with issues around fidelity, child-rearing, and general panic-attack/freak-out red-white-and-blue angst. What made The Sopranos great was the translation of that universal American family anxiety into the world of gangland crime and murder.

Which brings us to the first principle of using your own life in fiction:

Make the internal external.

Is your interior story about being trapped, held captive, imprisoned in some doomed stasis?

Consider telling it as a prison story.

Make the internal external.

Too much? Then ask yourself, How can I heighten the reality of my story? How can I raise the stakes?

How can I make the internal external?

Here’s what I did in The Knowledge:

I built a parallel redemption tale on top of the real-life interior “How can I redeem myself?” narrative of my own life. Then I wove the two stories together.

My real-life boss at the taxi company was rumored to have a suspicious past. Word around the shop was that he was into all kinds of shady (and maybe-worse-than-shady) activities.

Considering how to structure The Knowledge, I said to myself,

“Let’s make the taxi boss [Marvin Bablik] an out-and-out gangster. Let’s have him hire the character-that’s-me [“Stretch”] for some seemingly innocent extra-hours work. And let’s have that work spin out of control, increment by increment, until the character-that’s-me is inextricably tied up in this criminal’s affairs.”

Further, and critically important:

“Let’s have Bablik’s interior story be one of redemption as well. Let’s make his inner life a parallel for Stretch’s, only on a much more heightened, higher-stakes level. Life and death. Bullets. Murder.”

And finally …

“Let’s have a deep, unlikely, and unexpected bond develop between Bablik and Stretch. Let’s have them come to care profoundly for each other, so that the self-sacrifice of one can mean liberation for the other.”

In other words, I stole the emotional dynamic of Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Do you remember the story? It’s a parallel saga of Woody Allen’s character, a failing film documentarian trying to woo Mia Farrow away from TV big-shot Alan Alda–and Martin Landau, a successful ophthamologist who contracts for the murder of the nutty woman he fell into an affair with, Angelica Huston. One story informs the other. The two work as one.

We’ll get into this deeper in the next post. But as a quick flash-forward, here are the seven principles of using your real life in fiction:

  1. Make the internal external
  1. Pick a genre and run with it
  1. Raise the stakes to life and death
  1. Fictionalize on-theme only
  1. Make it universal
  1. Make it beautiful
  1. Detach yourself from the character that is you

[At the risk of repeating myself, please order The Knowledge if you haven’t already, and read it. It will make these posts ten times more productive.]


Posted in Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Using Your Real Life in Fiction

By Steven Pressfield | Published: November 23, 2016

Today my newest novel, The Knowledge, goes on sale. (Yeah, that’s me in the photo, taken in the same era in which The Knowledge is set.)

You can order The Knowledge right here in a premium “French flap” trade paperback edition not available anywhere else. Also in eBook or an eBook-plus-paperback bundle. There’s a special Holiday Bonus available too.

The Knowledge is my (real-life) writer’s coming-of-age story. I’m the protagonist. The internal story is all true.

The Knowledge takes place in New York City in 1974, when I was driving a cab and struggling to get my first novel published. The story is also, metaphorically, the origin tale of The War of Art. It’s my real-life passage from getting my ass kicked by Resistance to beginning to come to grips with my own demons of self-destruction and self-sabotage.

Which brings us back to my real-life All Is Lost Moment.

What is an All Is Lost moment anyway?

Watch any Hollywood movie. The All Is Lost moment will come around Minute 75, somewhere near the start of Act Three.

In the All Is Lost Moment, the hero is as far away from his or her objective as it is possible to be.

In the first Rocky, for example, Rocky’s moment comes when he leaves Adrian at home and travels by himself, the night before the Big Fight, to the arena in which he will face the heavyweight champ. Standing there, seeing the boxing ring, the huge posters of him and Apollo Creed … the full gravity of the event hits him. Rocky realizes he has no chance to win.

In Silver Linings Playbook, the All Is Lost Moment comes for Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) immediately after the climactic dance contest, when the man she loves, Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), walks away from her and crosses the dance arena to whisper some secret communication to his ex-wife Nikki, whom he’s been trying to get back together with for the whole movie.

You and I have All Is Lost Moments in our real lives too.

The Knowledge is about mine.

In fiction and in real life, an All Is Lost Moment is hopefully followed by an Epiphanal Moment.

In the Epiphanal Moment, the protagonist makes a decision or takes a stand, often driven my desperation, that propels him or her into the climax of the story.

The Knowledge is about my real All Is Lost Moment and my real Epiphanal Moment. I can still name them both and date them down to the hour.

It was those moments (fictionalized of course) that turned me from a wannabe writer to a real one.

I say “fictionalized” because one of the lessons that writing The Knowledge taught me is you gotta make the internal external.

You, the writer, have to make the real bigger than real.

Real as real doesn’t work.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to do a series of posts on the subject of using your real life in fiction.

I’ll use examples from The Knowledge.

I’ll tell you what was true and what was made up. And why I made up what I made up.

We’ll get into why a writer uses his or her own life as material. Is this a good idea? What could possibly go wrong?

And we’ll explore the counterintuitive link between the real and the fictional. How can it be that the fictional is realer than the real?

One last note:

As a Holiday bonus for the first 500 who order The Knowledge paperback-and-eBook bundle, we’re throwing in The War of Art eBook for free.

Why? Because in some crazy way each book is the alternative version of the other. The War of Art came directly out of the events of The Knowledge, and The Knowledge is the fictionalized real-life story of the origin of The War of Art.


Posted in Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The Muse and Me, Part Three

By Steven Pressfield | Published: November 16, 2016


One of my favorite passages from books about the artist’s life is this one from Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit:

Twyla Tharp

Twyla Tharp


I begin each day of my life with a ritual: I wake up at 5:30 A.M., put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirts, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st Street and First Avenue, where I work out for two hours. The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.


There is great wisdom to Ms. Tharp’s ritual/habit. The key phrase is ” … the ritual is not the gym … the ritual is the cab.”

In other words, it’s the practice, not the product.

What counts is not “Did I come up with a great dance breakthrough today?” (I.e. what happens in the studio.) What counts is “Did I do my practice today?” (What happens through the whole day, from the very first moment.)

What does it mean to “have a practice?”

We usually think of that phrase in terms of yoga, say, or the martial arts or other spiritual pursuits.

“I have a yoga practice.”

“I have a meditation practice.”

Twyla Tharp has a dance practice, a choreography practice.

Or more accurately, she has a creativity practice.

You and I have a writing practice.

As I turns out, I start my day exactly like Twyla Tharp. Except I live in Los Angeles so I don’t hail a cab or an Uber to go to the gym, I drive. But, like Ms. Tharp, my practice starts the instant I roll out of bed.

I am getting ready for the Muse.

My goal for that day—and every day—is not to kick ass at the keyboard or solve Narrative Problem #27 or lick Act Two.

My goal is to do my practice.

A practice is lifelong.

A practice is not about results, it’s about the work.

It’s about the doing.

It’s about the effort, and the patience, and the frame of mind.

A practice is about the link between the physical and the level above the physical. (more…)

Posted in Writing Wednesdays
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