I promise to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth…except when writing fiction?
I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while, and it’s been challenging for me to find the right angle of approach. This posting is intended to be an interactive discussion with you, my readers, because I’ve always found it helpful to understand how you are approaching things in your writing too.
How much truth is needed to write good fiction?
When I began writing short stories seriously, after taking a refresher class at Gotham Writer’s Workshop in Manhattan in 2009, I started out by writing stories at a distance. What I mean to say is I looked writing stories as the craft of creating fictional people in situations that had no resemblence to me personally or my life.
In the case of Red Tide, (a piece I’ve already written about on the Blog in a posting called Where Writers Find Inspiration for Stories,) I took two news items and crafted a story using elements of both as ingredients. It was the first story I got accepted for publication by the Aroostook Review. It felt easier for me to write from a distance because I didn’t have to ante up my own deepest fears, pain, rejection, love, joy, or happiness – even though the story I wrote was emotional and dealt with sickness and death.
It’s taken me over a year to begin breaking down the wall between my personal feelings/experiences and my writing. For me, this has been the most difficult aspect of producing meaningful work. (Reading the works of humorists Fran Lebowitz and David Sedaris have helped me find the courage to embed more of myself into my work.)
Let me give another example. I had been submitting 200 word shorts to Barry Graham over at Dogzplot for months. Each item I submitted was rejected. Since the rejection notes tended to say things like: “It didn’t work for me” or “I’ll pass,” I was left to my own devices to figure out how I was going to create a meaningful short that would be clear the bar of Barry’s editorial sniff test.
I was in bed one night (while in New Orleans) thinking about this and I bolted upright, went to my computer, and wrote Mice in one sitting. Mice exposes my paranoid self, the part of me that cycles through thoughts while trying to sleep and winds up with insomnia instead. I sent the piece to Barry that night because I felt in my gut it was good enough. He sent his acceptance the next day along with his fantastic edits. (By removing 7 words and adding punctuation he tightened the piece immensely.) I am convinced that Barry’s editorial nose is attuned to this kind of honesty, and I understood in order to jump the hurdle I was going to have dig deeper than I did with previous submissions.
To be clear, I’m not saying short stories should be an accounting of an author’s personal life to be good. But I’m (probably) saying in order to have emotional authenticity, it’s important to have an underlying base of real emotion and real experience that comes from a true place inside the writer to inform the work.
I’m continuing to strive for emotional honesty in my stories, and I hope my upcoming pieces in 2012 will showcase that evolution.
How much of your own emotion and personal experience do you use when creating your stories, poems or novels? Do you sense internal resistance to using these feelings, and if you do, how did you (or are you) overcoming that?
As always, thanks for reading and I look forward to your comments and interactions on the blog.