Imagine a heap of modeling clay as the idea for a short story. You want to shape the material into something original—let’s say a human figure—but you are failing because the mass of clay is packed with stones. The stones represent real life facts from your own experience. How can you shape the clay into something original? The answer is, you can’t—until you get rid of the stones.
By itself, life rarely makes good fiction. When a story is based too closely on a writer’s background, she finds that her characters feel stiff and the plot cannot be molded into the tale she wants to tell. Author James Frey understood this perfectly when writing his harrowing tale of drug addiction, A Million Little Pieces (2003). While Frey did suffer from (and overcame) substance abuse, he greatly exaggerated the details of his story, including the severity of his addiction. In other words, he harnessed his imagination. The critics raved. Oprah Winfrey had him on her show. The problem was that the disgraced Frey wrote his book as a memoir—not fiction. You get the idea: Changing the facts is looked down upon in nonfiction, but is essential in fiction.
Novels and short stories should not be about what happened, but roughly based on or inspired by what happened.
If fellow writers in your workshop are saying your fiction seems rigid, you might be limiting yourself to true facts, people, and experiences. You have jettisoned the most powerful tool in a writer’s arsenal: imagination. Step away from the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and your fiction may soon explode in new directions.
Why do writers stick too close to the facts? Often it’s because they are in too much of a rush to finish or publish. However, human imagination can neither be shoved nor rushed. Your real-life experiences must ferment in your subconscious before they’re ready for the written page. It’s a process that can take months—even years.
Yes, Anthony Burgess completed A Clockwork Orange in three weeks. But other authors weren’t as lucky. J.D. Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye), Margaret Mitchell (Gone with the Wind), and Junot Diaz (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) all required a decade to finish their novels. J. K. Rowling planned Harry Potter for five years before she began actually writing.
However, this essay isn’t meant to discourage. You have everything you need to create a great story that’s stored deep inside you. I offer here a trick or two that may help hasten your progress, though I’ll warn you, my approach is radical.
First, consider changing the gender of your protagonist (this has nothing to do with today’s issues surrounding transgender rights). It’ll fire up your subconscious. For example, you are 42-year-old mother who, last summer, took a disastrous camping trip with your husband and three children. Now you want to write a humorous short story about the bad food, hard ground, and kids who’d rather have been at Six Flags.
Change the protagonist to your husband. If this feels outlandish, consider the following: The essential setting and plot remain the same. What differs (and inspires) is that you’re writing from a mindset that’s not wholly your own. Let your imagination consider how a father experienced this debacle among the pines and lakes. Free yourself from the stiff facts of reality that straight-jacket your creativity.
You say, “But I’m not a husband or father!” That’s where your imagination comes in!
If you’d like to test out the approach, read George Saunders’ brilliant 400-word story “Sticks.” It’s the first-person tale of children growing up under a stern and bizarre father. The man has the habit of dressing up a metal pole in his yard, depending on the season and his moods. During the Superbowl, he hangs a football jersey and helmet.
“On the Fourth of July the pole was Uncle Sam, on Veteran’s Day a soldier, on Halloween a ghost,” writes Saunders.
In his old age, when the father realizes how harsh he’s been with his children, he hangs signs from the pole that say “LOVE” and “FORGIVE?”
Try rewriting the story, this time replacing the character of a father with a mother. Or your eccentric uncle. What objects might they hang from the pole?
My second suggestion is to change the era in which your story occurs. Say you want to write a tale about your great grandfather’s experiences in World War II. What might your imagination reveal if you changed the setting to the Vietnam War? The essence of your story remains the same—the horrible experience of battle—but you won’t cripple your imagination by sticking too closely to actual history. Place your grandfather not in the deep snow of the Battle of the Bulge, but in jungles during the Tet Offensive.
By now, you may be awaiting evidence that this radical editing works. I can’t offer much proof; my sampling of people who tried out my ideas is rather small. In fact, 75 percent of writers immediately reject my approach. They are determined to write the tale they’ve had in their head for months or years. They might’ve composed three drafts and changing the gender of a main character feels like a setback.
In his 1955 Paris Review interview, William Faulkner claimed that a great writer must be ruthless. With fiction, everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness. I’d suggest nothing as draconian as making life miserable for yourself or loved ones for the sake of fiction. Rather, ruthlessness should be exercised on the written page. Eliminate a character you adore, but who isn’t advancing your narrative. Modify the setting—not moderately from Michigan to Ohio, but radically from Michigan to Mexico. Change the profession of your protagonist from professor to insurance salesmen.
Of the remaining 25 percent of writers to whom I suggest radical editing, 12 percent must be courted. To make my offer palatable, I suggest first changing a small section of their story, rather than the entire thing, to see if the technique feels right.
Another 12 percent embraces my idea enthusiastically. Usually, these are young, inexperienced writers who are less entrenched in a method. They figure they have nothing to lose by attempting this form of major surgery on a struggling patient. They’d see eye to eye with Jeanette Winterson who, in her Paris Review interview (1997), said,
The riskiness of Art…is the risk of creating a new way of seeing, a new way of thinking. The rebellion of art is a daily rebellion against the state of living death routinely called real life.
Facts are for biography. The role of fiction is to transform routine life into tales that didn’t existed before.
Finally, you may be wondering about the remaining one percent. This was a person who, after I recommended changing her protagonist’s gender, never came back to the workshop.
She must have thought I was insane.
James Vescovi is a high school teacher. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Hudson Review, Georgetown Review, Saturday Evening Post, and Creative Nonfiction