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 Warrior Ethos

The Spartans do not ask how many are the enemy,
but where are they.
—Plutarch, Sayings of the Spartans

The Warrior Ethos was written for our men and women in uniform, but its utility, I hope, will not be limited to the sphere of literal armed conflict. We all fight wars--in our work, within our families, and abroad in the wider world. Each of us struggles every day to define and defend our sense of purpose and integrity, to justify our existence on the planet and to understand, if only within our own hearts, who we are and what we believe in.

We are all warriors. Do we fight by a code? If so, what is it? What is the Warrior Ethos? How do we (and how can we) use it and be true to it in our internal and external lives?

From the Introduction by Steven Pressfield.

[The following is from chapter 12 of The Warrior Ethos:]

12. HOW THE SPARTANS BECAME THE SPARTANS

All warrior cultures start with a great man.

In ancient Sparta, that man was Lycurgus. He took the city from a normal society to a warrior culture.

So that no man would have grounds to feel superior to another, Lycurgus divided the country into 9000 equal plots of land. To each family he gave one plot. Further, he decreed that the men no longer be called "citizens," but "peers" or "equals."

So that no man might compete with another or put on airs over wealth, Lycurgus outlawed money. A coin sufficient to purchase a loaf of bread was made of iron, the size of a man's head and weighing over thirty pounds. So ridiculous was such coinage that men no longer coveted wealth but pursued virtue instead.

Lycurgus outlawed all occupations except warrior. He decreed that no name could be inscribed on a tombstone except that of a woman who died in childbirth or a man killed on the battlefield. A Spartan entered the army at eighteen and remained in service till he was sixty; he regarded all other occupations as unfitting for a man.

Once a Spartan was visiting Athens. His Athenian host threw a banquet in his honor. Wishing to show off for his guest, the Athenian indicated several illustrious personages around the table. "That man there is the greatest sculptor in Greece," he declared, "and that gentleman yonder is its finest architect." The Spartan indicated a servant from his own entourage. "Yes," he said, "and that man there makes a very tasty bowl of soup."

The Athenians, of course, were outstanding warriors in their own right. The great playwright Aeschylus, composing his own epitaph, mentioned nothing of his ninety plays or of any other civilian accomplishment.

Here lies Aeschylus the Athenian. Of his courage at the battle of Marathon, the long- haired Persian could speak much.

Lycurgus decreed that no man under thirty could eat dinner at home with his family. Instead, he instituted "common messes" of fourteen or fifteen men who were part of the same platoon or military unit. Above the threshold of each mess was a sign that said:

Out this door, nothing.

The point of the common mess was to bind the men together as friends. "Even horses and dogs who are fed together," observed Xenophon, "form bonds and become attached to one another."

The payoff came, of course, on the battlefield.

Here's how Spartans got married. Lycurgus wanted to encourage passion, because he felt that a child—a boy— conceived in heat would make a better warrior. So a young Spartan husband could not live with his bride (he spent all day training and slept in the common mess). If the young couple were to consummate their love, the husband had to sneak away from his messmates, then slip back before his absence was discovered.

It was not uncommon for a young husband to be married for four or five years and never see his bride in daylight, except during public events and religious festivals.

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