Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Detach Yourself From Everybody

By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 21, 2016

(You guys, as of this post we’ll revert to the every-Wednesday mode for the remainder of the “Use Your Real Life in Fiction” series. I hope this recent barrage of Mon-Wed-Fri posts hasn’t clogged up too many friendly inboxes. I just got excited about this subject and couldn’t help myself.)

We were talking in the previous post about killing off characters. We observed that this can be hard when the characters are based on people in our real lives.

Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman in "Rain Man"

Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man”

Can we kill off our best friend?

Our neighborhood priest?

Our mother?

Answer Number One:

We have to, if the drama demands it.

Answer Number Two:

We must detach ourselves emotionally from all our real-life characters.

We made the point in the last post that an old self must die before a new self can be born.

That’s why deaths (including emotional ones) are important, even mandatory, in drama.

Tom Cruise’s slick, self-centered Charlie Babbitt must give way before he can become a loving brother to Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.

Michael Corleone’s clean-cut Marine officer must step aside before Michael-the-next-Godfather can be born.

Four of the Magnificent Seven must die before the village can be saved.

But how do you and I, as writers, kill off our own mom?

How do we destroy our own career?

Our marriage?

The answer is the most critical element in this whole series on Using Our Real Lives in Fiction.

We have to treat our real-life characters as if they were fictional.

  1. We have to detach ourselves emotionally from the real-life version of our characters, including (especially) the character that is ourselves.
  2. We have to free ourselves in imagination and give ourselves permission to fictionalize.
  3. We have to see our real-life-based characters as aspects of our theme and act toward them accordingly.

If the character based on our ex-husband represents immature self-indulgence, maybe somebody has to give him a wedgie at the office Christmas party.

On the other hand, if he represents selfless integrity, maybe something really good has to happen to him. (Or bad, if it’s that kind of story.)

This is why it’s so hard to write something good based on our real life.

We’re inhibited by the material.

We’re loath to heighten its drama, to have fun with it.

We don’t want to hurt the real people we’re writing about.

All these inhibitions must be dismissed. We have to get over them.

Our loyalty must be transferred from the real-life characters (including ourselves) to the reader and to the story itself.

In a way, this is good.

It forces us to grow up.

It demands that we step back from our real-life self (and from all the real-life characters in our story) and ask, “What is this story about? What’s the deep, honest truth here?”

Can we do that?

That’s the artist’s charge when using material from her own life in fiction.

We, the readers, won’t sit still for a sob story or a self-justifying rant. We don’t want to read your diary or your journal. We want The Great Santini. We want Riding in Cars With Boys. We want To Kill A Mockingbird.

The book or movie you write will be judged as pure fiction, willy-nilly.

You’ll get no points because “this is my real story.” You will be cut no slack because “the characters are all true.”

You must make them truer than true.

You must handle your characters and scenes, no matter how real they were and are, exactly as you would if they were pure fiction.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

13 Responses to “Detach Yourself From Everybody”

  1. December 21, 2016 at 2:19 am

    “This is why it’s so hard to write something good based on our real life.” I think this is one of the reasons CSLewis took the bible seriously, because it makes for poor drama. Love the posts, Steven. Keep filling the inbox.

  2. December 21, 2016 at 6:46 am

    I’m not sure about the part where I have to grow up, but series has been very helpful.

    Truer than true.

  3. Craig Colquitt
    December 21, 2016 at 6:57 am

    I like your truth…… Ephesians 2:9.

  4. December 21, 2016 at 7:09 am

    “We don’t want to read your diary…” is my new mantra, Steve. It goes for our conversations as well as our writing, doesn’t it? I will miss your extra posts each week! Thanks for cranking them out for us lately.

  5. Tom Wall
    December 21, 2016 at 7:37 am

    Steve, you can write and send as many emails as you want.
    You make all the other emails far less important.

    The Knowledge was a great read and now a great tutorial.

    Thank you

  6. Mary Doyle
    December 21, 2016 at 8:26 am

    This has been a great series – your posts are always a welcome addition to the inbox!

  7. Jerry Ellis
    December 21, 2016 at 8:59 am

    WHOA! You know, Steve, I love your series lately and have been making that clear in my written responses. And I get what you’re saying today, hoping it helps your many readers. BUT–ah, you felt it coming, right?–I got to hop on my snorting horse today from a little different ladder. When I walked the 900 mile route of the Cherokee Trail of Tears, I kept a journal–God forbid, a diary–and wrote my book, my very first book, a non-fiction book, Walking the Trail, One Man’s Journey Along the Cherokee Trail of Tears, as if it were a novel. Random House nominated it for a Pulitzer Prize and over the years it has sold hundreds of thousands of copies and been quoted in Reader’s Digest and excerpted in several anthologies, one by Norton. Yet, YET, I was able–as I think you’re saying today–to keep my archetypal hero, myself, at an objective distance. Stepping in and out of myself, to convey honest, deep, personal, and universal emotions as I wrote the book–in 8 months it was completed and in an NY auction two weeks after an agent read it–and yet to perceive my hero, myself, as a crowbar to pry open readers’ hearts really wasn’t a charging mastodon of a challenge. I suppose having published several short stories in NY and having had a play produced and being the ripe old age of 41, way back then, helped me know when in the book to be personal and when to view my hero as a bigger than life fictional character, who in true life was very real. Of course, the very concept of such a book, walking an important historic trail and being the first in the modern world to do that, granted me a rare opportunity. In other words, I think a writer can turn a diary into a big book. All he has to do is DO something extraordinary. That, and maybe have a little talent. I’m already looking forward to your post next Wednesday! Thanks for all your hard work, your generous big heart.

  8. December 21, 2016 at 10:33 am

    Oh My Goodness this is so TRUE: ‘You’ll get no points because “this is my real story.” You will be cut no slack because “the characters are all true.”’ It is what I cried about, whined about, felt I was dropped like a lead balloon. But the feeling of always being “blindsided” is what made me stronger. And GIRL if your child survived when it actually happened – who am I as the adult [when it is no longer happening] are to give up on me now…It is Answer #2 for me: “I must detach myself emotionally from all my real-life characters.” I WELCOMED the barrage of Mon-Wed-Fri Posts – I needed the jump start – IOW’s “make it pop so that me, the reader, feels it and gets it.” THANK YOU.

  9. December 22, 2016 at 1:39 am

    This: You’ll get no points because “this is my real story.”

    Haha! Great advice in general – to detach ourselves from our drama too.

    I don’t even see myself as a writer, but your emails? I read them ALL. :-)

  10. December 22, 2016 at 10:00 am

    I have to chuckle: Not only did Tom Cruise’s character have to figuratively die in Rain Man, but in in Edge of Tomorrow (think Groundhog Day) he had to literally die.

    As Roger Ebert’s reviewer Matt Zoller Steit put it, Cruise is almost unrecognizable by the end from the man we knew at the opening. As in Rain Man, he starts out selfish…

  11. December 22, 2016 at 10:13 am

    Greetings from New Zealand

    Hey Steve,

    Happy Christmas and all the best for the New Year to you and your loved ones. Thanks for a great year of inspiration. Your the best!

    Gary Dennis

  12. Gerald D. Swick
    December 23, 2016 at 8:45 am

    “You’ll get no points because “this is my real story.” You will be cut no slack because “the characters are all true.” For years I’ve tried to explain that to people in my writing classes and seminars who are trying to write a novel based on their own life or the life of one or more of their parents. They always balk, saying “But that’s the way it really happened.” From now on, I’m going to quote you on this, Steven, because I don’t think it can be said any better. Thanks!

  13. December 26, 2016 at 5:37 pm

    Thank you