Steve's All Is Lost Moment, 1974

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Don’t Be Afraid to Make Sh*t Up

By Steven Pressfield
Published: December 5, 2016

 

Oops, I lied again.

Tyrone Power and Ava Gardner as Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley in the movie version of "The Sun Also Rises"

Tyrone Power and Ava Gardner in the movie version of “The Sun Also Rises”

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.

The answer:

 

            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.”

What’s fiction?

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?

It means

 

 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.


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The Legend of Bagger Vance

Memorable . . . a page-turner . . . golf played a foot from Alice's looking glass, with mystical realms poised to engulf the reader at every turn . . . Bagger Vance is a success, climbing to an uplifting conclusion on a well-constructed scaffold of suspense.
—Sports Illustrated
Golf and mysticism . . . a dazzler and a thought-provoker.
—The Los Angeles Times
BUY THE BOOK: Hardcover | Paperback

In the Depression year of 1931, on the golf links at Krewe Island off Savannah's windswept shore, two legends of the game, Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, meet for a mesmerizing thirty-six-hole showdown. Another golfer will also compete—a troubled local war hero, once a champion, who comes with his mentor and caddie, the mysterious Bagger Vance. Sage and charismatic, it is Vance who will ultimately guide the match, for he holds the secret of the Authentic Swing. And he alone can show his protégé the way back to glory.

[This first passage is from the book's very beginning.]

A NOTE TO THE READER

In May of 1931 an exhibition match was held over 36 holes between the two greatest golfers of their day, Walter Hagen and Robert Tyre "Bobby" Jones, Jr. The match was the second and last between the two immortals (Hagen shelled Jones, 12 and 11 over 72 holes, at the first in Sarasota, Florida in 1926.) This second match was held at what was, at the time, the most costly and ambitious golf layout ever built in America, the Links at Krewe Island, Georgia.

Much has been written about the rather odd events of that long day. We have Grantland Rice's dispatches to the New York Tribune, which were published at that time. The notes and diaries of O.B. Keeler devote several quite absorbing pages to the match. And of course the reports from the dozens of newspapers and sporting journals which covered the event.

One aspect of that day, however, has been largely overlooked, or rather treated as a footnote, an oddity or sideshow. I refer to the inclusion in the competition, at the insistence of the citizens of Savannah, of a local champion, who in fact held his own quite honorably with the two golfing titans.

I was fortunate enough to witness that match, aged ten, from the privileged and intimate vantage of assisting the local champion's caddie. I was present for many of the events leading up to the day, for the match itself, as well as certain previously unrecorded adventures in its aftermath.

For many years, it has been my intention to commit my memory of these events to paper. However, a long and crowded career as a physician, husband, and father of six has prevented me from finding the time I felt the effort deserved.

In candor, another factor has made me reluctant to make public these recollections. That is the rather fantastical aspect of a number of the events of that day. I was afraid that a true accounting would be misinterpreted or, worse, disbelieved. The facts, I feared, would either be discounted as the product of a ten-year-old's overactive imagination or, when perceived as the recollections of a man past seventy, be dismissed as burnished and embellished reminiscences whose truth has been lost over time in the telling and retelling.

The fact is, I have never told this story. Portions I have recounted to my wife in private; fragments have been imparted on specific occasion to my children. But I have never retold the story, to others or even to myself, in its entirety.

Until recently, that is. Attempting to counsel a troubled young friend, for whom I felt the tale might have significance, I passed an entire night, till sunrise, recounting the story verbally. It made such a profound impression on my young friend that I decided at last to try my hand at putting it down in written form.

This volume is that attempt.

I have chosen, for reasons which will become apparent, to tell the tale much as I recounted it that night. It is a story of a type of golfer, and a type of golf, which I fear has long since vanished from the scene. But I intend this record not merely as an exercise in reminiscence or nostalgia. For the events of that day had profound and far-reaching consequences on me and on others who participated, particularly the local champion referred to above.

His name was Rannulph Junah, and Bagger Vance was his caddie.

Hardison L. Greaves, M.D.
Savannah, Georgia
May, 1995

"The Legend of Bagger Vance is such an entertaining book on the surface you hardly realize you are being taught some of life's greatest truths. Pressfield has seamlessly brought together that rare combination of fun and enlightenment in a novel that seems destined to take its place alongside some of the great works in golf literature."
—Links Magazine
"The Legend of Bagger Vance is quite simply the best golf novel I have ever read, but it is so much more than that. We all know that the true game is played against one's inner self. Steven Pressfield has captured the essence of that battle better than any of his predecessors. I was utterly riveted by this work of art, and literally covered with goose bumps for many hours until I had finished it at a single sitting."
—Ben Wright, author of Good Bounces and Bad Lies and The Spirit of Golf
"Truly a delight. Even now when I play in professional tournaments I think of the positive effect Bagger Vance had on everyone associated with him. He will be with me for many years to come."
—Patty Sheehan, Solheim Cup captain and member of LPGA Hall of Fame
"Pure magic! I read it straight through in one sitting. It should be required reading for anyone who loves the game and has a sense of its history and mystery."
—Deane Beman, former Commissioner of the PGA Tour
"The Field of Dreams of golf . . . the only golf novel ever written that earns 'couldn't put it down' accolades. This is a book that will remain with readers for a while, and will certainly emerge every time they step on a golf course."
—Book Page
"Memorable . . . a page-turner . . . golf played a foot from Alice's looking glass, with mystical realms poised to engulf the reader at every turn . . . Bagger Vance is a success, climbing to an uplifting conclusion on a well-constructed scaffold of suspense."
—Sports Illustrated
"Good stuff . . . a philosophical fantasy imagined on a golf course, heavy with fog, storm, fireworks and howling winds of supernatural forces."
—The New York Times Book Review
"Golf and mysticism . . . a dazzler and a thought-provoker."
—The Los Angeles Times
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Gates of Fire
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Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t
The Authentic Swing
The Lion's Gate
Turning Pro
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The Virtues of War
Killing Rommel
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The Legend of Bagger Vance
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