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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Turning Pro

The follow-up to the bestseller The War of Art, Turning Pro navigates the passage from the amateur life to a professional practice.

You don’t need to take a course or buy a product. All you have to do is change your mind.
—Steven Pressfield

Turning Pro is the first official book released by Mr. Pressfield on his own publishing company, together with Shawn Coyne, Black Irish Books.

TURNING PRO IS FREE, BUT IT’S NOT EASY.

When we turn pro, we give up a life that we may have become extremely comfortable with. We give up a self that we have come to identify with and to call our own.

TURNING PRO IS FREE, BUT IT DEMANDS SACRIFICE.

The passage from amateur to professional is often achieved via an interior odyssey whose trials are survived only at great cost, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. We pass through a membrane when we turn pro. It’s messy and it’s scary. We tread in blood when we turn pro.

WHAT WE GET WHEN WE TURN PRO.

What we get when we turn pro is we find our power. We find our will and our voice and we find our self-respect. We become who we always were but had, until then, been afraid to embrace and live out.

[The following are the first two chapters of Turning Pro:]

TURNING PRO

BOOK ONE THE AMATEUR LIFE

1. THE HUMAN CONDITION

The Daily Show reported recently that scientists in Japan had invented a robot that is capable of recognizing its own reflection in a mirror.

“When the robot learns to hate what it sees,” said Jon Stewart, “it will have achieved full humanity.”

2. THREE MODELS OF SELF-TRANSFORMATION

When we hate our lives and ourselves, two models present themselves as modes of salvation.

The first is the therapeutic model. In the therapeutic model, we are told (or we tell ourselves) that we are “sick.” What ails us is a “condition” or a “disease.”

A condition or a disease may be remedied by “treatment.”

Right now we are “ill.” After treatment, we will be “well.” Then we will be happy and will be able to function productively in society and in the world.

That’s one way of looking at our troubles.

The second way is the moralistic model. The moralistic model is about good and evil. The reason we are unhappy, we are told (or tell ourselves) is that we have done something “wrong.” We have committed a “crime” or a “sin.”

In some versions of the moralistic model, we don’t even have to have done anything wrong. The human being, we are told, was born wrong.

The answer to the condition of wrongness is punishment and penance. When we have “served our sentence” and “atoned for our sins,” we will be “pardoned” and “released.” Then we will be happy and will be able to function productively in society and in the world.

This book proposes a third model.

The model this book proposes is the model of the amateur and the professional.

The thesis of this book is that what ails you and me has nothing to do with being sick or being wrong. What ails us is that we are living our lives as amateurs.

The solution, this book suggests, is that we turn pro.

Turning pro is free, but it’s not easy. You don’t need to take a course or buy a product. All you have to do is change your mind.

Turning pro is free, but it’s not without cost. When we turn pro, we give up a life with which we may have become extremely comfortable. We give up a self that we have come to identify with and to call our own. We may have to give up friends, lovers, even spouses.

Turning pro is free, but it demands sacrifice. The passage is often accompanied by an interior odyssey whose trials are survived only at great cost, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. We pass through a membrane when we turn pro. It hurts. It’s messy and it’s scary. We tread in blood when we turn pro.

Turning pro is not for everyone. We have to be a little crazy to do it, or even to want to. In many ways the passage chooses us; we don’t choose it. We simply have no alternative.

What we get when we turn pro is, we find our power. We find our will and our voice and we find our self-respect. We become who we always were but had, until then, been afraid to embrace and to live out.

Do you remember where you were on 9/11? You’ll remember where you were when you turn pro.

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Gates of Fire
The War of Art
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Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t
The Authentic Swing
The Lion's Gate
Turning Pro
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