It’s hard to tell the truth

[September 2007] What’s one of the most common pieces of advice given to young writers? Write what you know. Many authors more accomplished than I am have weighed in on the myriad possible interpretations of “what you know.” If it were taken literally, there would be fewer murder mysteries, precious few books about vampires and none at all about space travel. More often than not, writers make stuff up out of whole cloth.

Even so, readers are perennially curious to find out how autobiographical a work is. What bits are “true” and what parts are made up? Invariably, elements from our lives creep into what we write, either consciously or subconsciously. We recreate situations we overhear and witness. Conversations we’re part of or privy to. Successes and failures we experience. Memories from the past—recent or distant.

Injecting these experiences adds a level of credibility to our fiction. As Michael Westin—the defrocked spy on Burn Notice—says, when you have to make up a cover story, keep the lies to an absolute minimum and use as much of the truth as possible. It’s easier to remember that way.

Sometimes we do more than simply integrate experiences into our stories. We mine deeper. Part of our lives speaks so loudly that we have to process it, and fiction is the way we writers deal with things. As the saying goes, it’s cheaper than therapy. That’s a nice, pithy quote, but the truth of the statement is inescapable.

According to Michael Westin’s philosophy, a story with a predominantly factual basis should be easier to write than a complete fabrication. In reality, when we decide to embark on a personal exploration, we risk exposing ourselves to others. We also risk exposing ourselves to ourselves.

I recently finished a short story that is by far the most autobiographical I’ve ever written. It takes a frank look at the community where I grew up, and how my nostalgia for it hasn’t kept up with the times. The town has moved on in the decades since I moved away. It’s not the same place I knew, and I would probably be regarded as a stranger there if I moved back.

It took me longer to write the 5000-word first draft than usual. I knew where the story was going, but the journey was difficult. I could close my eyes and picture the setting better than for anything I’ve ever written, I understood the protagonist’s dilemma, and yet I had trouble making forward progress. I got bogged down in editing what I’d already written, and it took nearly two weeks to complete the first draft.

When I was finished, I did something I rarely do. I sent the unproofed draft to the editor who had solicited the story. I’ll call him Mike, because that’s his name. I had a sinking dread it was fourteen pages of self-absorbed navel gazing. I wasn’t even sure it was a story.

Fortunately, Mike loved what I’d done. Not without reservation, though. He had several suggestions, but he also said something that made me think. He said it seemed like I was holding back. I had to admit he was right. I wasn’t conducting an architectural dig; I was barely scratching the surface.

During every revision—and they’ve been legion—I ventured a little deeper. I pulled out things I’d been previously reticent to explore.

When I received the next set of copy edits back from Mike, I was chagrined to see that he had slashed entire paragraphs that contained real details from the memories that inspired the story. I bristled. I balked. I drafted response letters in my head that defended my glowing, shining prose. It really happened that way, I wanted to write.

But then I discovered something. The “facts,” such as they were, became somewhat disposable or interchangeable. I was free to change things around to improve the impact of the story.

In retrospect, I believe that I found it easier to write details than generate genuine emotional response. I gave myself a couple of day’s distance from the story (I spent a weekend getting caught up on submissions and revising another story) and tackled the copy edit report with fresh eyes. I wasn’t ready to give in yet. I found good reasons to keep some of the text. However, these reasons had legitimacy in the context of the story. The passages I decided to keep revealed something about the theme or the character’s transformation. The things that were easiest to cut were simply window dressing. I even lopped out a “real” character because she was inconvenient and, ultimately, immaterial to the story.

Eventually, I accepted about 2/3 of Mike’s cuts, and even made a few extra of my own. As of this writing, I’m still not entirely sure what final shape the story will take, but it’s a much more honest story than the one I submitted nearly a month ago. I don’t think I’ve ever worked harder on a short story. I’ve lost track of the number of revisions it’s been through, and according to the statistics generated by Word, I’ve spent over twenty solid hours on the most recent draft alone.

The story isn’t perfect, that’s for sure. There are elements of what I wanted to convey I’m not sure I captured. Maybe I’m my own worst critic about this story. Mike keeps telling me I nailed it, and my first reader told me that “everything just flowed like a stream.” That put to rest my fears that the story was self-indulgent, at least. Imperfect, perhaps, but not a catastrophe.

Telling the truth, laying a little sliver of my soul bare, proved to be among the hardest writing I’ve ever done. However, it shows me a doorway into future works. That doesn’t mean I intend to do personal history post-mortems from here on out, but when I chose to do so again maybe it won’t be as much of a struggle.

Nah—it will be. Who am I trying to kid? It’s harder to tell the truth than to make things up.

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