Truthful and Honest…Fiction

I promise to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth…except when writing fiction?

Elena Kagan (L) is sworn in as the Supreme Court's newest member as Chief Justice John Roberts (R) administers the judicial oath, as Jeffrey Minear (C) counselor to the chief justice, holds the Bible at the Supreme Court Building August 7, 2010 in Washington, DC.

Elena Kagan swears in for her duties on the Supreme Court

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.


8 Responses

  1. Very well put. Yes, I believe you’ve got to inject your own emotion (and logical thought) into writing to make it work – to resonate.

  2. This is too big a topic for me to adequately comment on here – but in short – my writing was pointless until I began to use real events in my life as inspiration for fictional stories. Night and day – it took me several years to figure that out. Why was I able to write so easily and well as a kid (with no veils), but as an adult it was all drivel? I stopped and started in frustration for twenty because of this. All artists, in any medium, absolutely must tap into their own inner spirit to create anything authentic.

    • So well said Wren, I appreciate your comments.

      For me, one of the ‘hurdles’ that keeps me back is what people will think of my stories. I’m not a writer full time, I have a corporate job and a pretty conservative one at that. If the people I work for see things like “fuck” or sexual content or something too raw in my short stories, I don’t know if it could cause a problem.

      I realize this is differen than the basic notion of breaking down the wall between my feelings and my stories, and I agree it has to be done, but this “work life” vs. “personal life” thing does hover in my mind.

      • 100% the reason why I write the erotica under a pen name – a carefully protected pen name.
        What I write for me though, I’ve just sort of assumed that no one else is really going to see it, (although I do use a different last name at work) and the reason why I never, ever mention what company I work for on any social sites, including my blog.
        I also figure that if I ever am famous enough that someone from corporate would read what I wrote, then heck, I can probably quit my job anyway! 😉

        • Honestly I think that’s an incredibly smart move re: your pen names.

          But I hope you are WRONG sistah – and that a LOT of people are going to see what you write and read what you write. You deserve it. 🙂

          Thanks for popping by, incidentally, it’s nice to see you on the wires!

  3. It is a good idea to consder writing a novel. However believe me it will come on its own. There is not a particular way it comes but you will know when it does. It will not let you do anything other than writing notes on your novel. It is like giving birth to a child. There is no analysis how but you know that you are pregnant and you are about to deliver. So just live your life and it will come if its meant to be. REMEMBER we don’t really write stories. Stories are expressed through us.

    • Thanks for your comment George. Interesting idea, that writers are the mechanism through which stories are expressed…

      In any case, I do have ideas for novels. They’ve lain dormant on my computer, but there are two pieces I feel could develop into novel form – but it is a matter of me putting in the time and devoting myself to it…

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