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.
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The first three novels I wrote (all unpublished and unpublishable) were excruciatingly autobiographical.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.
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
ADDITIONAL READING » CLASSICAL GREECE
by Forde, Steven
Brilliant scholarly dissertation on the mind-set of Alcibiades and the politics of imperialism in ancient Athens. You’ve gotta be a real aficionado to find this book (try your local college library) and get through it. But it will reward the serious reader. I borrowed all kinds of goodies from Forde for Tides of War.
by Morrison, Coates, and Rankov
Triremes were the famous ancient warships with three banks of oars. The problem: no one of the past 1500 years knew how the old guys did it. All design and engineering has been lost. The authors of this book play detective, scouring ancient texts, coins, carvings, and using their own imaginations. They figure it out, then build a trireme of their own. It works! Fascinating.
by Xenophon (Loeb Library, two volumes, translated by Walter Miller)
Though this book purports to narrate the upbringing and conquests of the great Persian king, in truth the society Xenophon describes is that of Sparta (no outsider knew it better than he), complete with “peers,” good manners at the dinner table, and why a true warrior never urinates on campaign (he should have eliminated excess water entirely by sweating).
by Herodotus (translated by Aubrey de Selincourt)
This is the book “The English Patient” was carrying. Funny, personal, and very entertaining, this book recounts the history of the clashes between Greeks and Persians, out of which arose the modern world. The battle of Thermopylae is in here—and Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea—plus dozens of zany, fascinating flashes into ancient life.
by Thucydides (translated by Rex Warner)
Tough sledding because of the dense but absolutely brilliant prose. May be the greatest book on war and human nature ever written. Timeless.
by Houston, Paul
My friend Paul Houston, in England, put together Sparta World, a work-in-progress website for Spartaphiles and aficionados of all things Spartans. The site is interesting in and of itself (and constantly evolving) and also a great jumping-off point and clearinghouse for re-enactor groups, hoplite fighters, artists, writers, and all other contemporary upholders of the Lakedaemonian tradition and ethos—and just for the fun of it. Paul invites all interested groups and individuals to contact him, link to the site, and network with their “peers.”
by Thucydides (edited by Robert B. Strassler)
A different but also excellent translation—but this one comes with maps, dozens and dozens, down to postage-stamp sizes, on almost every page. They help.
by Plato (translated by Hugh Tredennick)
Okay, okay . . . Two works by Plato . . . Translated by Hugh Tredennick, The Last Days compiles four dialogues into an organic whole narrating the trial, conviction, and death by hemlock of Socrates. Deep stuff on the subject of dying.
by Plutarch (translated by Richard J.A. Talbert)
The best one-book introduction to Sparta and Spartan thought. Several of Plutarch’s Lives of famous Spartans, plus Sayings of the Spartans and Sayings of the Spartan Women. Start here.
by Xenophon (translated by Rex Warner)
Ten thousand Greek mercenaries follow Cyrus the Younger’s three months’ march into the wilds of Persia, then lose the battle they came to fight. Xenophon was there as a young officer. His tale of the Greeks’ long and harrowing retreat against the hordes determined to obliterate them is justifiably immortal. Hollywood’s The Warriors, about a street gang from Brooklyn, was cleverly knocked off from this.
Easiest to read of all “the sources.” Short bios, packed with anecdotes and wisdom, of every great man of the Classical era. Plutarch wrote them in pairs, juxtaposing Caesar to Alexander, Alcibiades to Coriolanus, that sort of thing. My faves: Lycurgus, Solon, Themistocles, Alcibiades, Alexander.
This Penquin paperback assembles the lives of all the major players in Athens’ rise and fall—Theseus, Solon, Themistocles, Cimon, Pericles, Nicias, Alcibiades, and Lysander. A brilliant editorial concept, The Last Days can be pretty scary when you read-in the parallels to the contemporary United States.
by Lazenby, J.F.
Another hard-to-track-down work (try the Reference Librarian) that may lack the readable touch, but is crammed with great esoteric stuff like what the Spartans called a platoon leader [an enomotarch.] Only for true Sparta fanatics.
by Cartledge, Paul
Chairman of the Classics faculty at Cambridge, Cartledge is the expert, from whom I have also borrowed major tonnage. Here he’s not writing an exhaustive, all-inclusive tome, but hitting the high spots with great depth, if you know what I mean.
by Plato (translated by Walter Hamilton)
Hard to pick only one work from this great writer, thinker, and wrestler (Plato was his nickname, meaning “broad-shouldered”) and protégé of Socrates, but this is it. A night of gentlemen’s conversation, drunk and sober, at Athens in its glory days, highlighted by soliloquies “in praise of Love” by Aristophanes, Alcibiades, Agathon, and Socrates. Truman Capote wishes he threw a party like this.
by Carey, Christopher
Still extant are the actual lawyer’s arguments from a number of famous ancient cases. Trust me, Johnny Cochrane had nothing on these slick Athenian legal eagles.