Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Detach Yourself From “You”

By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 2, 2016

 

[Continuing our new Mon-Wed-Fri series, “Using Your Real Life in Fiction” … ]

I said last week that we would go through the seven principles of using your real life in fiction. But on second thought, we’d better skip to Principle #7 and study it first. It’s by far the most important.

J.D. Salinger

J.D. Salinger

 

Detach yourself from the character that is “you.”

 

The first three novels I wrote (all unpublished and unpublishable) were excruciatingly autobiographical. I was the central character. Everything was about me. But what made them unbearable to read was that the real-life me, the writer, was still inextricably, personally bound up in the agonies that the fictional-me was going through on the page.

The stories weren’t fiction, they were therapy.

I was inflicting my real-life angst on the poor reader.

I was not giving her gold; I was giving her ore.

The manuscripts should’ve been stuck in a drawer and left there.

Reading this, you may be thinking, “Steve, you’re being too hard on yourself. I’ll bet if we pulled these pieces out of your closet, they wouldn’t be half as bad as you’re describing them.”

Trust me, they are.

And so is every other manuscript I’ve read from aspiring writers who use themselves as the protagonists of their works before they’ve gained perspective and emotional distance on their own selves and their own lives.

By the way, this principle applies to nonfiction and memoir as well. That story you’re writing about your grandmother who was a spy for MI5 in Cairo during World War II? Be careful. Don’t let family pride and ego blind you to that indelible truth:

 

Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t

 

The Big Positive about using your own life in fiction is that you know it intimately. You feel the emotions in your bones. You have passion for it.

It’s your blood.

It’s your baby.

The Big Negative is that self-intimacy can blind us to how our character—that wonderful, fascinating “us”—is playing in the eyes of the cold-blooded, easily-distracted, unknown-to-us reader.

Remember what you and I as writers are competing against.

Batman.

The Revenant.

The Martian.

Donald Trump’s tweets.

The bar is high, baby.

We’re going up against Spiderman and Harry Potter and Vladimir Putin.

It is imperative that we, as writers, detach ourselves emotionally from the character that is “us” and assess that character’s appeal and interest with complete objectivity (or as close to objectivity as we can come.)

I know, I know. When we hear Beyonce sing certain songs of marital betrayal, we think, “Wow, this is being torn straight from her guts, it’s so real!”

Keep in mind: Beyonce has sung that song 876 times. What we’re watching is not real-life agony or rage enacted in the moment. We’re watching a performance by an artist.

That’s what you and I have to deliver in our work.

Art is artifice.

The character of Holden Caulfield is, I will wager, very very close to the character of J.D. Salinger. But Holden Caulfield is not J.D. Salinger and J.D. Salinger is not Holden Caulfield. Holden Caulfield is the creation of an artist named J.D. Salinger who had gained perspective and distance on his own life and, from that, had created a deliberately-crafted, artificial entity to which he gave the name “Holden Caulfield.”

Was it hard for me to use myself as a character in The Knowledge?

No, because I had thirteen years (from the time I was twenty-four till I was thirty-seven) of writing about myself the wrong way. Thirteen years of being too close to myself. Thirteen years of having no perspective.

And I had another thirty years of writing after that.

So I could do it. I could step back. I could see “myself” as a character. I wasn’t tied up in “me.” I had no ego about the character that bore my name.

But that capacity takes time to develop. It takes pain. It takes embarrassment. It’s a process of maturation.

If you’re a young writer using your real life in fiction, focus first on that.

Get out of your own space.

Pull back to thirty-thousand feet.

See yourself cold.

See yourself without attachment.

See yourself the way you’d see another person.

Real-as-real is a tough sell. If we put J.D. on the page, we’re gonna fail.

We gotta put Holden.

[Next post we’ll get back to our Seven Principles in order.]

 

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

22 Responses to “Detach Yourself From “You””

  1. December 2, 2016 at 4:24 am

    I see why you had to skip to #7 first. Learning the fine art of creating a character by mining our own character can’t happen overnight, or in a weekend seminar. This post brings me so much peace, Steve… I’m into my second decade working on it, too!

  2. Mary Doyle
    December 2, 2016 at 4:42 am

    Thanks so much for skipping ahead to #7 with this post. Your continued willingness to turn the lens on your own hard-earned lessons for our benefit is much appreciated! Looking forward to the rest of this series.

  3. December 2, 2016 at 4:58 am

    FYI… I started reading The Knowledge this morning, a day early. I was saving it for Shabbat, but just couldn’t wait!

  4. December 2, 2016 at 6:23 am

    “The stories weren’t fiction, they were therapy.” Ohhhhhhh…. that says it all!

    Thank you for your knowledge and The Knowledge. Reading…

  5. December 2, 2016 at 6:32 am

    I am on Page 109 and my third “what the heck” (Honest I said heck). I don’t remember how many WHAT THE HECK’s I said when Donald Trump began his Presidential Campaign. I am not in the political arena or a writer/author arena; BUT in an arena that knows there is a message [for me] in this book, maybe a few parables as well. HAPPY for the new Posts every M/W/F’s for as long as it takes. The message for me today is: “detach yourself from the character that is “you”. For me I am calling this free-on line HELP course “SOMETHING 101” with Professor Steve Pressfield knowing [for myself] a bigger picture is being painted, a wider lens to the camera is needed for a clearer understanding of what I am reading now. MANDATORY REQUIREMENT for taking “the course”. Buy the text book, THE KNOWLEDGE. PS: When Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, was asked the question: What can we do to HELP save humanity. She simply answered: DO SOMETHING!!!!

    • December 2, 2016 at 8:37 am

      Feel if I am going to be real and honest I need to clarify my “what the heck” – Actually I was “shocked” with what I was reading as wasn’t what I expected what I was going to be reading in “the book”. Honestly, I actually do not know what I was expecting. Oh Well! When attempting to be in the author/writer arena I do “get it” and not so shocking. Such an attempt, though, is foreign, so takes a while. :-(

      • December 2, 2016 at 10:04 am

        All right already..”MY 5-YEAR OLD/muse” nagging at me “REALLY is that all you want to write?” Me: Well no!!Felt disappointed. Saying to myself do I freakin want to keep reading this book with all the “f” words and “locker room talk? I mean is this the same author who wrote THE WAR OF ART and THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE?” Normally when I get to this point of feeling and engrossed with a book, I go to the end and read the chapters backwards until I say to myself OK I can keep on reading from where I had already read up too. I am not doing this with THE KNOWLEDGE. I am going to read in the sequence written – BECAUSE there is SOMETHING I am to learn from this that is more than I can even imagine or even thought of or about. It is like OK, what is going on [within me] that I felt I wanted to throw the book across the room? I am sure I will come close to know what “I am to learn” by the end of the book and the M/W/F’s Posts and don’t want attempting to run before I can walk. No doubt Resistance playing a role PS: I, too, am freakin out about Teaspoon. PPS: Steve, curious question: Was the picture used for THE KNOWLEDGE a photo shoot for “something” in the 1970’s? :-)

        • December 2, 2016 at 12:05 pm

          Re the photo, Gwen … it was taken in 1984, I think, by Christy Henspetter (I was her boyfriend at the time), who’s now a fine artist working in Santa Fe, http://www.henspetter.com, at the Transcon trucking lot in Buckeye, AZ. We were there making a short film for Transcon and decided to use the DANGEROUS sign on one of the trailers as a backdrop. Goes to show you: never throw away an old photo.

          • December 2, 2016 at 2:06 pm

            So interesting – Thank you….

          • December 5, 2016 at 4:30 am

            “never throw away an old photo”

            My daughter to my son, “You’d better delete all those photos.”
            We’d just arrived at her place in Chapel Hill after spending an exciting night in Nashvegas on our road trip the night before.

            “What? Do you think I’m stupid?” he said.

            The problem is the cloud, the backup, the photos he drunk shared with this buddies…

            Me: I’m a creative, no photo can hurt my career. Well, maybe if shot an elephant and posed with it.

            Him: USA officer. Different standard completely.

  6. Tony levelle
    December 2, 2016 at 6:39 am

    “It is imperative that we, as writers, detach ourselves emotionally from the character that is “us””

    Wow! I am in throes of this right now. Working on excruciating nonfiction book and have not gotten ‘detached’ yet. Yes, its therapy. Yes it *is* that bad. Thanks for tip, you nailed it.

    Onward!

  7. fjr
    December 2, 2016 at 7:13 am

    What I have found is that even the writer’s friends who read the work will roll their eyes when the author depicts himself really with too much sympathy and attachment, as a caricature, too uncommonly artistic or spiritual in sensibility and too nobly flawed.

  8. Craig Colquitt
    December 2, 2016 at 7:21 am

    Perfect timing. I gravitated away from a memoir to novelization and now with this tool #7 to separate and detach I can bleed without stains.

  9. G.R.
    December 2, 2016 at 8:28 am

    Thank you very much, Steve, for this:”Thirteen years…” Now I understand why I have been working for fourteen years.

  10. December 2, 2016 at 8:29 am

    I just want to know if the bar scene was even partially real? *giggle*

    I am enjoying “The Knowledge” a lot. I’m freaked out for Teaspoon right now, though.

    • Mary Doyle
      December 2, 2016 at 11:41 am

      Erika I am also freaked out for Teaspoon right now…

  11. December 2, 2016 at 8:35 am

    Burned my breakfast and then decided to skip work so I can keep reading The Knowledge today. Can’t put it down, gotta finish it before sunset, that’s for sure!

  12. Sonja
    December 2, 2016 at 12:02 pm

    oh, so good, so good! I’m loving all of it, swear words and your new york adventures.

    I love this principle and I know it to be truth, but you write about it with clarity.

    The Catcher in the Rye is one of my all-time favorites. Holden and that hunting hat—pure genius.

  13. Lee
    December 2, 2016 at 12:41 pm

    I use myself in my poetry all the time. Not disputing your findings, it ratifies them. It’s a different genre with different rules. However, in my playwriting your advice is spot on. I will adapt it.
    “We’re going up against Spiderman and Harry Potter and Vladimir Putin.” I’m going up against Howl, Angels in America and Aaron Burr, but yeah, what you said.

  14. December 2, 2016 at 1:53 pm

    OK. I’m not quite going to finish it tonight… I’m saving Book Eight and savoring, “It’s not what you know… It’s not even what you do. It’s who you are.” Thanks for such a juicy life lesson wrapped in hours of fun today! Shabbat Shalom, Steven!

  15. Anthony Hunsche
    December 4, 2016 at 5:20 pm

    Steven, do you have any specific practices or key questions that you employ when detaching yourself? I get the “what” and “why” of this, but still struggle with the “how”.