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
By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 7, 2016
When we as writers use our real life in fiction, we tend to use real-life personalities too. One of the big ones in The Knowledge is my cat, Teaspoon.
My real-life cat was named Mo. I changed the name for a reason, which I’ll get into below. But first let’s flash back [see Chapter 52 in Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t] to one of the seminal principles of story-telling:
Every character must represent something greater than him- or herself.
And its corollary:
Every character must represent an aspect of the theme.
What, you may be asking, does this have to do with Steve’s cat?
The answer comes back to how a writer views material, whether that material is pure fiction, i.e. totally made-up, or borrowed from real life. In either case, the writer’s first question to him or herself is, “What does this character represent?”
Are you working on a story that has your ex-husband as a character? Your mother? Two buddies you served with in Afghanistan?
You must ask, as a writer, “What do these characters represent? What aspects of the story’s theme do they stand for?”
In The Godfather, every character represents a different aspect of the theme of family/immigrants-in-a-new-land/”criminal”-ethos-as-nobler-than-the-ethos-of-the-greater-society.
Every character in the Corleone family represents a different angle on this complex theme. Vito. Michael. Sonny. Fredo. Connie, Mama, Tom Hagen. Tessio, Clemenza, Luca Brasi.
The characters outside the family do the same. Kay represents the counter-family in terms of Mayflower WASPiness; she represents what Michael and the Corleones can never become. The gangsters in the other Five Families represent a different counter-family—criminals whose code of honor is a few levels beneath that of the Corleones.
But back to my cat, Teaspoon.
I really did have a cat during the period [see Chapter 5] in which The Knowledge takes place. I really did find him on the street as a tiny kitten; he really did travel with me all around the country; he really was an outdoor cat; he really did pad out the rear window of my apartment and down a two-flight staircase to roam around our NY neighborhood every night all night.
And my real cat really did curl up next to my typewriter as I worked, with the typewriter carriage shuttling back and forth over his head.
He would stay in that spot for hours. He became my lucky charm. As long as Teaspoon was there in his spot, I could write like a bandit. One time in California he got sick and had to stay at the vet’s for four days. I was paralyzed. I couldn’t write a word till he got back.
Did I include that last passage because it was cute? Partly. But mainly because it was on-theme.
The theme of The Knowledge is an aspiring writer must overcome his demons of Resistance, i.e., distraction, self-sabotage, and self-betrayal, before he can become a real artist.
Teaspoon represents an aspect of this theme.
He represents this struggling writer’s muse.
An animal, a creature of nature, stands for the unspoiled, instinctive connection to the Source.
I respect Teaspoon because he is his own man. I have no idea where he goes at night. He roams as far afield as Nicolette’s basement apartment, which is six city blocks away. I have no idea how he gets there. He navigates by cat radar …
He has been with me [forever] and has always been true blue. He’s the kind of cat who would lend you money, no questions asked, if he had it.
Remember our two principles regarding characters in fiction:
Every character must represent something greater than him or herself.
Every character must represent some aspect of the theme.
There’s another constellation of characters in The Knowledge—the gangsters Yehuda, Ponytail, and Ivanov.
They represent distraction. The self-sought-out “drama” that keeps our protagonist, Stretch, from doing his work as a writer.
Therefore, if GANGSTERS = DISTRACTION and TEASPOON = MUSE, what must happen in the story?
The gangsters have to kidnap Teaspoon.
(This was actually Shawn’s idea, after I showed him the first draft. Immediately he said, “You gotta have Yehuda kidnap Teaspoon. Teaspoon is Stretch’s muse. Stretch has gotta go all-out to recover his cat. It’s like The Big Lebowski, where the Dude is trying to get his carpet back.”)
A huge part of the story became Stretch trying to get Teaspoon back from the gangsters.
Does this sound crazy? Maybe. But it works.
It works because it’s on-theme.
It works because it’s the story-in-miniature.
The reader gets it, even if only on an unconscious level.
To continue this line of thinking, let’s throw in a third element.
The character of Nicolette in The Knowledge represents a different aspect of the theme. She is, and stands for, a realized artist. She is Stretch’s semi-girlfriend, a painter who has truly found her groove and is a bona fide working, professional artist. She is in touch with her muse and in control of her artistic power.
Nicolette represents what Stretch wishes he could become.
If TEASPOON = MUSE and NICOLETTE = REAL ARTIST, who winds up saving Teaspoon and giving him back to Stretch? [See page 261 in The Knowledge.]
This is the way a writer constructs a story. This is the architecture undergirding the various acts and sequences and scenes.
When you and I use our real lives as raw material for our fiction (and when we thereby recruit real people as characters), we must process these real people the same way a novelist processes purely fictional characters.
We ask ourselves, “What’s the theme? What’s our story about?”
Then: “What aspect of the theme does this character represent?”
Oh yeah, why did I change “Mo” to “Teaspoon?”
Again, to stay on-theme.
I found my cat when he was a tiny kitten, at midnight on a street called Cheyne Walk in London … The kitten was so small I could cup him in one palm and fit him into the breast pocket of my jacket. In England they call this the “teaspoon pocket.” So he became Teaspoon. I slipped him in next to my heart and he curled up and went to sleep.
Key phrase: “next to my heart.”
That’s where an artist’s muse lives.
[Don’t forget, if questions occur to you about this stuff, write ’em in in the Comments section below. I’ll do my best to answer them.]
Posted in Writing Wednesdays | 22 Comments
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.]