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The first three novels I wrote (all unpublished and unpublishable) were excruciatingly autobiographical.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
By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 5, 2016
Oops, I lied again.
I promised we’d get into the Seven Principles of using your real life in fiction. But again I’m gonna jump forward to a critical corollary:
Don’t be afraid to fictionalize.
I used to be. I thought if I made stuff up, that would be lying. Being untrue to real life.
I would read Henry Miller and Ernest Hemingway and think, “See, they’re telling the truth! Everything they’re writing is real! That’s why it works! That’s what I’ve gotta do!”
Of course they were fictionalizing.
They were exaggerating.
They were heightening reality.
The trick was they were doing it so skillfully, I couldn’t tell. You mean Henry Miller didn’t really do that thing with the carrot in the doorway in Brooklyn?
Even if he did, who cares?
The truth is not the truth.
Fiction is the truth.
Remember, going back to our first principle of using your real life in fiction:
Make the internal external.
Why do we as writers do this? To involve the reader. In my real life, during the era of The Knowledge, I was allowing my inner demons of guilt, regret, and self-loathing to keep me from coming together as a real working writer.
The reader is not going to sit still for that.
It’s too interior.
It’s too bornig.
Make sh*t up.
Was I really beaten up by gangsters at three in the morning in the wetlands near Glen Island Casino? Was my boss Marvin Bablik really honored with a gala at the Waldorf-Astoria? Did my wife really fire seven shots from a nickel-plated .45 into the rear end of a vehicle loaded with Haitian assassins?
No, but all of those actions were on-theme. They all could have happened and should have happened within the invented reality of the story. And all of them are explicit statements of the parallel interior redemption narratives of the two central characters.
The rule is
You can fictionalize, but only to make the internal external.
Or put another way:
You may fictionalize only on-theme.
The Sun Also Rises is one of greatest pieces of American fiction ever. If you haven’t read it, please do. (We’ll give Hemingway a pass on his pages of anti-Semitism, homophobia, etc.)
How much of the book is “true?” My guess is 97.8%.
For sure, Hemingway hung out at the Select, the Dome, the Deux Magots. For sure he was in the First World War. For sure he traveled with friends, post-war, to Biarritz and San Sebastian and Pamplona. The bars, the bull fights, the countryside, the fishing streams, I’m sure they’re exactly as he described them in The Sun Also Rises. The Lost Generation emptiness and ennui, the hangovers, the hipper-than-thou humor, the avoidance of all topics of seriousness, the habitual drunkenness … I’m sure these are spot-on, down to the English expat slang and the details of the men’s and ladies’ wardrobe. Hemingway’s friends in the book are either real or easily-recognized composites. He probably knew someone exactly like Lady Brett Ashley and probably was in love with her and she with him.
All that is “real.” It’s all “true.”
One critical component: that the protagonist, Jake Barnes, i.e. Hemingway, had his manhood shot away in the war.
I know, I know. It’s been done before. Other characters in fiction have suffered similar emasculating wounds.
But nothing ever matched the power of that fictional incapacitation, because it told the whole story in one stroke.
That war-spawned impotence defined Hemingway’s generation as surely as “I can’t get no satisfaction” defined a later one.
What does that mean for you and me as we begin the novel that’s based on our real life?
Don’t hesitate to go beyond the truth.
Identify its essence, in your character-in-the-story and in the story itself.
Then heighten that truth.
Make it pop, so that we the readers feel it and get it.
Make the internal external.
Don’t be afraid to make sh*t up.
Posted in Writing Wednesdays | No Comments »
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.
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.
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.
Before I address these questions, a short digression:
I’m reading a great book now—Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Notebook.
The Notebook tells 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:
- Make the internal external
- Pick a genre and run with it
- Raise the stakes to life and death
- Fictionalize on-theme only
- Make it universal
- Make it beautiful
- 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.]